An eventful week

Well, quite an eventful last few days have passed.

I was down in Cheltenham last Wednesday for a business meeting, which was actually quite productive and interesting. I decided, despite the very cold weather, to go down on the motorbike. By the time I was a few miles from turning off the M5 to head into Cheltenham, my fingertips were freezing cold. In all the miles I have done on a motorbike and in all weathers, last Wednesday was definitely the coldest my fingers have ever been. I actually felt the cold biting at the end of my finger tips – there’s no better way to describe the sensation – and I wondered to myself whether this pain was indeed where the word ‘frostbite’ originates. Convincing myself otherwise, I rode through the pain and was soon at my destination.

Following the meeting, I made my way out of Cheltenham. After a few minutes and increasingly cold fingers, I decided to consult Google to find a motorbike apparel shop. Sure enough, there was a branch of Hein Gericke (a personal fave for bike clothing) on the outskirts of Cheltenham, which I had actually passed on the way in. Unfortunately, they had sold out of under-gloves, but the sales assistant offered to knock 30% off the price of a set of over-gloves instead, insisting that I made sure I was comfortable I could ride with them before I bought them by taking them out to the bike and ensuring that they offered adequate handling of the controls. They were a little bulky, but were good enough as far as I was concerned, so I bought them and went on my way home.

The same evening, I had planned to ride up to Grimsby, with a view to staying over at my mother-in-law, Joyce’s house before attending my Aunty Eileen’s funeral on Thursday. In the event, I was tired after the ride to Cheltenham and back, had spent quite some time sorting out the mess that was our cupboards in the vain search for a missing under-glove I knew I had somewhere. In the event, I didn’t find the glove, it was already 20:00 and the temperature was dropping further outside, so I decided to head up to Grimsby by car. It transpired that this was a wise decision, since the normal route I drive was closed towards the approach to Waltham, near Grimsby, and the diversion took me through some treacherous, ice and gravel covered lanes, albeit through pretty villages.

On Thursday, I attended the funeral of my Aunty Eileen – the wife of my dad’s brother Bob. Bob died a couple of years ago and I had been unable to attend his funeral through work commitments, so I had resolved to make it to Eileen’s. They were both lovely people who had raised four daughters, each of which went on to have wonderful families of their own. Bob was a bit of a comedian, and Eileen always appeared to me to be acting like the sensible one when they were out together. Unfortunately, the last few years had seen a decline in their healths, with dementia taking a hold on Eileen in recent years, so, in actual fact, we lost the real Eileen some time ago. Nevertheless, their family of children and grandchildren does them great credit.

The funeral itself was, as they tend to be nowadays, more of a celebration of Eileen, and it was clear that the vicar had known Eileen, so it was a little less impersonal than religious funerals usually are. Her daughter, Barbara, read a lovely poem about her (Eileen had enjoyed writing poetry, so it was done by way of a tribute). The wake afterwards was another opportunity to see family I met just a few weeks ago under similarly sad circumstances, following the death of my Aunty Elizabeth, only there were more of the Eileen’s grandchildren there this time, many of whom I hadn’t seen for years, so it was a nice opportunity to catch up with some of them.

I also learned that it had been arranged for my Aunty Elizabeth’s ashes to be interred at the same time as those of Eileen, the following day, and that was a nice thought, since the two had known each other very well, and it meant that Elizabeth’s final resting place would be next to her brother, Bob and his wife, Eileen – a little plot of Chivers family in Lincolnshire.

I headed back home on Thursday afternoon, taking Joyce with me in the car, since the forecast wasn’t good for Friday and Joyce’s husband Ron (my ‘step father-in-law), preferred that she come down with me and that he come and collect her on Monday. The roads were pretty quiet and we had a good journey back.

In the evening, I headed out for a BAiT rehearsal, at which we thrashed out ideas for an acoustic arrangement of one of the last three songs we recorded as a full band, Sunshine song. It was starting to come together quite nicely by the end of the evening.

Friday was back to work, and fairly uneventful in work terms, although I had quite a productive day overall.

On Friday evening, I had a gig with Ministry Of Beaver at the Kingswood Tavern, in my own town of Nuneaton. It’s one of my preferred venues, as there’s generally a good crowd there and they’re very positive about the kind of music we play. We always go down well there. Phil kindly brought along an extra monitor wedge for me to use. I haven’t been using a vocal monitor at all for some time, since they usually take up a lot of room – something which is at a premium for most gigs, and I have gone with the old view of ‘if I can’t pitch to the music itself, I shouldn’t be singing’. The reality though is that you do need to be able to hear what you’re singing and can’t rely on the sound you’re getting through your cheekbones.

Phil also started singing backing vocals and did a great job, although we need to agree on which of us is singing which part in many places – something we haven’t really had time to do properly, as Phil has been learning the bass parts and concentrating primarily on them.

It was another good gig there, despite the attempts of a few local chavs who turned up after we had finished and started to wind up a few people. A fight almost broke out, but the pub staff handled it well and things settled down again. For some time, I’ve had the idea of having ready a sample of some fast bluegrass music, featuring the obligatory three note start – Foggy Mountain Breakdown would be ideal, especially if accompanied by a rebel yell or two. I’ve never had the sample ready though and trouble is extremely rare – I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions where violence has happened at any gig I’ve ever played at – and it’s never been at the dedicated biker kind of places – always the town pubs.

On Saturday, I penned a long email to ‘hand in my notice’ to Ministry of Beaver. I have blogged about this in a separate entry, Nothing to do with the band, but to do with me switching priorities in life.

On Sunday, we made a trip to Ikea in Coventry. We went through a phase of going there very regularly, but hadn’t been for a while. The last time we went, we bought a really good desk for the living room computer for £10 – and a mighty sturdy one at that! We went back on Sunday to find a pedestal or set of drawers on which to place the printer. After much looking around at various options, we settled on a set of bedside drawers in a style we already have in our bedroom.

On the way to Ikea, I had noticed a slight change in engine noise, but, apart from mentioning it to the others in the car, thought little of it. However, on the return journey, as we pulled up at lights by the Ricoh Arena, the noise became very bad and smoke appeared from the engine bay. I managed to get across the roundabout and up to the parking bay before pulling over and examining the damage. As I opened the engine bay, we saw sparks dropping down from the timing belt (or cambelt) area and then saw that the belt itself had broken. This is bad news for a car, since it means the pistons are almost certainly bent and is a very expensive job to repair. Following recovery home (thanks to the quick response of the RAC again – for the second time in a year), and some research, I quickly established that a new engine might be the cheapest way to repair the car and so I resigned myself to the fact that our car, Mem Saab as it is known to us, is dead.

The old girl has done us proud. We paid £8,000 for her ten years ago and she has done 80,000 miles under our ownership (I tend to travel by motorbike whenever possible), so that’s not bad value, and I have to say, she hasn’t put a foot wrong besides standard wear and tear and corrosion. I have broken down three times in all that time and it was always (with the exception of this time) minor things which were relatively inexpensively fixed. She may have been a bit thirsty, but what a car! She got us down to Switzerland and back towing a caravan last summer without a single hiccough. She’ll be missed when she’s gone, that’s for sure.

Now comes the fun of investigating a new car. I’m only going to be looking at things on the basis of practicality and economy. I’m not really interested in looks at all – it’s very subjective anyway, and the cars most people consider to be beautiful, I’m not so keen on. I did have a thing for the Lamborghini Countach and the Lotus Esprit as a kid (those nice, ’70s cars with edges), but you can keep your BMWs, bling, and executive cars. They do absolutely nothing for me.

So, I guess it’s time to start doing some research. Wish me luck!

A politicised Wikipedia? What happened to neutrality?

So, let me get this right, Jimmy Wales…

I should start out by stating that I have read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SOPA_initiative/Learn_more and I am aware that you have left access to Wikipedia open on mobile devices or by disabling javascript (fine for those of us who know how to do that – and to switch it back on again for the many sites on which it’s needed or useful), but…

In order to register your protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act – potential legislation being proposed in the United States, you’re going to punish the English-speaking world (not even just users in the United States) by depriving them of access to a service which they have built up for you.

This is legislation which is opposed by President Obama and already appears to be a non-starter, based on what I have read in the media. But, even if that is not the case…

I live in the United Kingdom. You may want to look on a map of the world to see where that is. I have no sway or influence over the politics of your sovereign nation, even if I wanted to. You do not appear to have a UK English version of your site, despite the fact that we are ‘two nations divided by a common language’, nor have you implemented your ‘protest’ in a way which uses visitors’ IP addresses to identify their country of origin, so you are not in the position to act in a way which only affects users who may, and I mean ‘may’, be able to have the tiniest impact on this legislation.

Wikipedia represents an open source of knowledge. It may not always be perfect, but the beauty of its open nature is that people in a position of knowledge do indeed have the option to correct errors instantly, and have their work reviewed by peers; something it does have over printed encyclopedias. Indeed, although the perception that Wikipedia is full of inaccuracies (hardly surprising given the vast subject areas covered), I have heard experts in various fields complement the site for its accuracy. The site presents sources clearly and I have found it to be an extremely useful reference in the past. I defend the concept of Wikipedia.

What I can’t get past is the logic behind this action. You may have consulted core members of the Wikipedia team (Wikipedians), but couldn’t you have offered a vote to your readers before you made your futile gesture? It is they ultimately and not just the hardcore Wikipedians who have built up your power and influence – all with their own time and effort, and in some cases money. And now here you are acting in a way which affects the very people who support you! It is fundamentally against the spirit of openness. Yes, I know that’s your point, but you are targeting the wrong people.

Support you? You’ve just alienated me and politicised a site which supposedly celebrates its ‘neutrality’. I don’t want to see your face at the top of the page asking for my financial support again after this fiasco. No wonder the head of Twitter called your gesture ‘silly’. Your visitors deserve better. And if you don’t think so, would you mind confining your actions to those who can have any influence over your politics. Google have behaved far more responsibly and fairly in their protest, by symbolically blacking out the Google logo on the US version of the website. Likewise WordPress, whose home page is very striking as I write this. In both cases, they make their protest in a powerful, but unintrusive way.

As one of countless similar comments (by a Wikipedian) on your own site has stated…

“I am saddened and aggrieved that some people want to use Wikipedia as a political tool. If people have objections to legislations they should make their protests known by acting as individuals, not by utilising the work that I and thousands of others have done. I am not contributing to Wikipedia to provide anyone with a means to add weight to their opposition to legislation. If you’re not happy, write to Congress – you can use OpenCongress, or some other means. A handful of vocal editors should not be able to force the closure of a website used by millions.”

Morris Dancing: You’ve Got To Laugh, Haven’t You?

Is there really a debate going on about whether Morris dancers or X Factor winners, Little Mix, should participate in the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics?

Got to say, I’m with the Morris dancers. For all the ridicule they get, they are bastions of this country’s folk dance traditions going back hundreds of years and it would be nice if, for a change, we celebrated our folk heritage as other nations do.

With a bit of imagination, a mass of traditional dancers, backed by a group of the finest folk musicians from the British Isles, I am sure a great show could be put on. Perhaps we could take the opportunity to teach some of our own islands’ inhabitants that our cultural heritage originates not in the streets of Harlem, but from the many varied regions and traditions which make up this collection of islands.

My own personal experience of people hearing English folk in particular is that they instantly assume it is Irish, due to the similarities in instrumentation and song. This is sad in the first place, because it illustrates immediately that they have no idea of how their own indigenous folk music sounds. English folk comprises jigs, reels, shanties, and other song forms – all from a variety of regions across the country, all with their own regional twists.

There was always a cross-pollination of musical influences across the British Isles, including Ireland of course. This in some way explains why, when British people, ignorant of their own country’s folk music, hear it for the first time, they instantly assume it to be Irish.

As for the ceaseless mockery of Morris dancing, people used to mock Irish dancing until Riverdance came along as the interval act of the Eurovision Song Contest and transformed people’s perception of that traditional dance form, making it and all things Irish ‘cool’.

Perhaps, in this respect, we should learn from our friends and relatives across the Irish Sea.

I don’t believe it!

Here’s my ‘paranormal’ story, since it’s Halloween.

In the summer of 1983, we took a family holiday to Scotland to a place called Crubenmore, near Newtonmore in the Scottish Highlands, and stayed in a wooden cabin next to Crubenmore Lodge. We had travelled up as full family: my mum, dad, and both my brothers. We were also joined by my dad’s sister, who used to accompany us on family holidays, which were always somewhere within Britain.

Thanks to the magic of Google Maps, I can actually show you a picture of the place.

The cabin was divided into three sections, with a bedroom and bathroom at one end, a large living room area in the middle, and a couple of bedrooms at the other end.

I was twelve at the time and had developed an interest in ghosts, as many of us do at that stage. I should say at this point that my father was a Church of England vicar, and so we grew up with a spiritual element to our lives, although it was a mainstream C of E church, and so there was no affirmation of faith through charismatic behaviour, such as speaking-in-tongues or any other such ‘magic tricks’ – just an ordinary and friendly congregation. I remember my dad and mum telling me at some point not to dabble with ouija boards and I took their advice, but heard the usual incredible stories from friends at school of their experiences, or their friends’ friends’ experiences.

Anyhow, for some reason, somebody mentioned during the course of the holiday that the actor Alec Guinness had died. He was actually still very much alive at the time, and had in all likelihood come up in conversation due to my fondness for all things Star Wars as a twelve-year-old boy.

During the course of a night, I woke up (or was at least semi-conscious). I was quite frightened of the dark at that stage and used to regularly ask to go to sleep with the lights on. As I lay in my bed, the following words entered by head, although I didn’t voice them out loud.

“The ghost of Alec Guinness, are you there? Knock once for yes, and twice for no.”

Suddenly, there were two very definite and clear knocks on the wooden panelling behind my headboard. I jumped out of the bed with a start and called out for my brother and aunt, both of whom were sleeping in the same large bedroom. I called out again for my aunt, but she didn’t respond, so I made my way towards the door in the dark, planning to make my way through the living room area to my parents’ room. I remember thinking that I’d be safe with my dad – he was after all a vicar and would have some kind of magical powers!

As I reached out to open the door, it swung open in front of me – not just ajar, but fully open. By this stage I was really frightened and pretty much ran across the living room to my parents’ room, where I insisted on spending the rest of the night.

Now, here’s the thing. At the time, I can remember thinking in the morning that I was actually quite happy with the idea of the existence of ghosts. I accepted it completely and actually saw it quite positively. If there were ghosts, there must be an afterlife. Fine! Putting the scary stuff to one side, that was great!

However, over the following weeks, I began to attempt to rationalise it. Perhaps I had imagined the whole thing. I was definitely not fully awake when it happened. Perhaps if the events I describe had happened, the knocks on the wooden cladding were my bed hitting the wall a couple of times, or my older brother moving around in the next room. The door opening may not actually have swung fully open – I had merely imagined that it had. If it opened at all, perhaps it was, as would be expected in such a building, due to my movement, a draught, or simply the building itself moving.

I had a further eerie experience on a separate occasion – in church. My dad used to repair the pipe organ. He had originally trained as a piano tuner and then took a very much hands-on approach to maintaining the church pipe organ, which resulted in pipes being made at home and hours spent routing around the back of the instrument at church. On one occasion, he asked me (or probably ordered me after I’d driven my mum to distraction) to accompany him there. I sat in front of the keyboards while he did what he needed to do maintenance wise, my feet dangling above the organ bass pedals, which I always loved to stand on – brilliantly farty notes. I now understand why I discovered a love for the low frequencies of synth bass pedals, beloved of Prog Rock.

I glanced around at one point and saw a ghostly figure as clear as day stood against the whitewashed wall. Its face was very vivid and its features extremely clear to me. I turned around in fright and then decided to brave my fears and to look back again, hoping that it had gone. It was still there. Somehow, I summoned up the courage to approach the figure in the pews. As I approached, the shape shifted slightly and it became clear that it was merely shades on the wall which my brain had formed into recognisable features, as our brains are wired to do. If I had taken a photo at the time, it would have been a classic ‘ghost photo’.

So, what do I think of these experiences now? Well, the second one taught me to confront those kind of scenarios and attempt to find the rational explanation. The first one taught me that the brain is very good at making you think you experienced things, or convincing you that they happened in a certain way. It has also presented my brothers with endless opportunities to mention the experience, or just Alec Guinness whenever possible, so if you can’t beat ’em…

Paul, Peter, and Alec Guinness in Crubenmore Lodge

Paul, Peter, and Alec Guinness in Crubenmore Lodge

It’s why eye-witness accounts have been shown on many occasions to be completely unreliable. People remember what they want to – good or bad. And if we are in a state of mind to expect ‘paranormal’ experiences, anything which validates that expectation gets the ‘stamp of approval’ in our memory.

Life begins at 40… and starts with buying a caravan

My 40th birthday will certainly be a memorable one.

In the lead up to my birthday, we (Emma and I, with the combined encouragement of the kids) decided to get a caravan. We enjoy getting away from time to time and have done so in our large family tent (which is a great tent in every sense of the word), but having thought of various ways of tackling our planned holiday to the Swiss Alps this year to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary and my 40th in a reasonably-priced way, we explored various options of managing to do.

Our first consideration was to hire a car and take our large tent and sundry equipment, but any car hire company seems to charge upwards of £700 for one week with a Galaxy or similar large-ish MPV type thing when you leave the shores of this country.

Our other consideration was the fact that we will probably be overnighting in 4 different places. If we take our family marquee, based on it taking approximately one hour to set up and another to break down, and then having all the faffing around with damned inflatable beds, that’s a lot of time eeked out of our holiday just setting up home for the night or two.

The next idea was to hire a motorhome for the week. After some research on the Web, it became apparent that this would cost around about £1000 for the week. It also came to light that many privately-owned motorhomes are hired out to others in order to fund their purchase for the owner. For some time, this seemed to be quite an appealing idea in itself and we entertained, albeit for a very brief time, the idea of getting a second-hand one ourselves and renting it out to fund its purchase, but there are big risks involved in doing that, and no guarantees, so we went off the idea pretty quickly.

Then we had a week in Tewkesbury at the start of the month at the Tewkesbury Abbey Caravan Club site. We met up with Emma’s mum and step-dad, Joyce and Ron, while we were there. They’d gone for the whole week, whereas we had decided to go from Monday to Friday. We took our family tent and Joyce and Ron were in their caravan. The day we arrived, the heavens opened and, as has been my normal experience when camping, the process of setting up our tent was a wet and muddy one.

I don’t mind so much setting up a small tent for myself (like on my motorbike trip last year), even when it’s raining, as it’s a quick process. It was tough, however, setting up our large family tent as the rain fell – especially while people around us were snug in their caravans. We had a nice week anyway, and the weather came good in the end. Having spent some of our evenings with Joyce and Ron in their caravan, we did find ourselves in the position of considering whether it might not be a good idea to hire or buy a caravan for our planned family trip to Switzerland in July.

So, when we got back, I started looking into buying a second-hand caravan. After a fair bit of time on Autotrader’s caravan section, checking some dealerships, and doing some reading-up, we’d pretty much decided which layout we wanted and then narrowed this down to a make/model. As a family of five, we needed a five or six berth. We decided that we wanted one with fixed bunk beds, as these take up little room. In the end we decided to try to get hold of a Cristall Sprint TKM – a German/Dutch-made caravan with excellent towing properties and excellent construction, but light enough to be towed by even smaller cars. These appeared to be going for around £6000-6500 in the second-hand market. Importantly, German/Dutch caravans have an excellent reputation for resisting the curse of caravans… damp.

After a couple of failed attempts at getting one (the first sold pretty quickly, and the second one was a little too overpriced and not in particularly great condition), we thought we’d just have to wait until one became available. Then I went against recommended advice on buying a caravan and had a look on eBay. And there it was… exactly the model we were after, with a few days left until bidding ended.

I arranged to go and take a look at the caravan before bidding, which meant a trip to Ashington, a few miles north of Newcastle. In the event, it seemed like a good excuse for a day on the motorbike and also an excuse to come back via my old home village of Oxenhope in West Yorkshire and stop off to visit my parents’ grave.

I made my way up to Ashington, and really enjoyed the ride up. People who have not ventured North are missing some beautiful parts of our country, and even I, as a Yorkshireman, had rarely visited the North East of England.

I arrived around midday and spent a good hour looking around the caravan and talking with the seller. Part of my own reassurance was to meet the person who was selling it, and I fairly quickly established in my own mind that he was a genuine family man whose family had just outgrown the caravan and who was looking for a caravan with more of living area so that he and his wife could go caravanning now that their grown-up kids had lost interest. Having had a good look around and under the caravan, I was happy that it was in good, close to excellent condition and so made my way back home via Oxenhope, where I took the opportunity to ride around the area and film my ride using my bike helmet-mountain video camera. I got home at around 19:00, after a round trip of 484 miles, had a bite to eat, went to a BAiT rehearsal and then came back and prepared for the end of the auction, which was due to end at 23:20. I made sure that I was there for the last few seconds and put in a couple of bids. In the end, nobody else bid against me (someone had already placed a bid a few days prior, but had not met the reserve price) and I won the auction at the bargain price of £4000. To say I was chuffed would put it mildly.

I contacted the seller to arrange collection and we arranged that I would collect it the following Monday (13th June – my 40th birthday).

On my birthday, we got up quite early. Emma and Tristan were coming to collect the caravan with me while the girls were at school. We anticipated arriving in Ashington at around 11:30, and hoped to be back at around 17:00. All was going well on the trip until, approaching junction 47 on tha A1(M), the brakes on the car failed in the third lane. Luckily, I was able to make it across to the hard shoulder, change the gears down gradually to first (thank goodness automatics still have lower gears) and then drive slowly enough on the hard shoulder of the slip-road that I could safely pull on the handbrake and stop the car.

I called the RAC, who responded within about half an hour, quickly diagnosed the problem as corroded brake lines, and recovered us to a nearby garage in Harrogate. The garage was excellent and got straight on with the job, but advised us that it would take a few hours and that we might like to walk into Harrogate town centre and have a look around, so that’s what we did, and it was a quite a nice five or so hours in Harrogate. We had a look around, I withdrew the cash for the caravan, and we had a nice spot of lunch at a café in the town centre. The garage was good to its word, and the car was ready just after 16:00, and so we continued on our journey.

No sooner had we got back on the journey than we had a phone call from Murron, back from school, stating that she couldn’t get in the house, because she only had the Yale key and we had locked the front door using the main key. She went around to a friend’s house and in the end her friend’s mum was kind enough to offer to put the kids up overnight, as we weren’t going to be back for some time and that was a better solution than us waking them up in the middle of the night. Very kind of her.

We arrive in Ashington at around 18:00 and spent about an hour sorting out things there. The wife of the couple selling the caravan very kindly made us some sandwiches and had also left a bottle of wine, a bag of Haribo sweets, and some chocolate cake as a kind of welcome gift to the caravan. That was a nice gesture, as was the effort the husband went into to help get us hitched up and going, and his explanation of a few more things around the caravan. Finally, we set off on the journey home. Emma said that the wife of the couple selling the caravan was a bit tearful as we were about to head off – it’s funny, but not surprising that we gain emotional attachment to inanimate objects, given the memories they contain – particularly when these memories are bound up in happy family memories.

After an uneventful journey back home, apart from the suicidal bunny which ran in front of our car, we arrived home at around 00:30 and put the caravan in the car park for the flats next to us, outside our house.

We spent a good part of the following day cleaning the caravan – not that it was dirty, apart from the rabbit guts I had to clean off the front of the caravan, before taking it to its place of residence, where it will be stored while it’s not in use.

So, buying a caravan must proove that I’ve turned 40. Do I feel any different? Not really. The world doesn’t appear to have changed much in the last 20 years. Music and fashion have pretty much stagnated. If you go back 20 years from 20 years ago (to 1971) and trace the changes in fashion and music in following 20 years (to 1991), the difference is remarkable; transitioning from Prog, glam rock, and flares, through to punk and drainpipes, New Wave/New Romantic and high-fashion, rap and hoodies, Britpop and electronic dance music. Today, more or less the same kind of music that was popular twenty years ago still pervades. Cars haven’t shifted shape massively either. The main, observable things which have changed have been technological (mobile phones and home computing, along with the coming of age of the World Wide Web). Otherwise, the last twenty years have kind of blurred together.

Perhaps that’s why I still feel like I’m in my mid-twenties. My tastes haven’t changed that much and neither has the observable world in which I live.

Dark Ages? No Thanks. Atoms for energy!

The recent natural disaster in Japan has sparked renewed debate on the issue of nuclear power. It’s an emotive debate, full of misunderstanding and public concern.

So, a bit of background first on what has happened with the reactors affected in Fukushima. Last month, Japan was struck by the worst earthquake in its recorded history. The reactors immediately went off-line, as they were designed to do. At that stage, the threat of a repeat of the events at Chernobyl was immediately ruled out. Subsequently, the electricity supply to the power station failed. Electricity is required at Fukushima to pump water around the reactors. When the tsunami hit Fukushima, the diesel generators failed and then the back-up batteries ran down. At that stage, no water was being pumped around the reactors and they started to heat up.

So, does this mean that we should put a stop to the nuclear programme in the UK (and worldwide)?

Well, we are fortunate in the UK in that we are not subject to the same plate tectonics as Japan. We rarely have serious earth tremors. The earthquake which hit Japan was 130,000 times stronger than the strongest earthquake we have ever had in the UK. Yes, you read that correctly – 130,000 times stronger.

We have experienced one tsunami in the British Isles on the scale of the one which hit the East coast of Japan – in 6100 BC, following the underwater Storegga slide off the Norwegian coast, which washed over some of the Shetland Islands and hit various areas on the coast of Scotland. There have otherwise been two recorded tsunamis – one in the Bristol Channel in 1607 and the other in Cornwall in 1755. According to a DEFRA report from 2005, the chances of such an event are extremely unlikely.

Despite all this, I fully expect that any nuclear power station should be built anticipating these kind of events – even in this country. Newer reactors already use convection cooling, so had the affected reactors at Fukushima employed this kind of cooling system, the events that have since transpired there would never have happened.

There are three principle reasons for supporting nuclear power, as far as I can see. They are environmental, political, and economical.

Environmental

Unless you deny that global warming is happening (regardless of what you believe the cause to be), you will appreciate that we need to drastically reduce our reliance on burning fossil fuels for energy production. There are good economic and political reasons for decreasing this reliance of fossil fuels too, which I will deal with below.

The fact that we are so reliant on burning long-dead carbon lifeforms for our energy in the 21st century is a sad indictment on how where we are in terms of our energy policy. Since 1991, we have imported more coal into the UK than has been mined domestically, and since 1997, our coal power stations, which accounted for 85% of our coal use in 2005, have used more coal than can be mined in the UK. By 2005, approximately 66% of coal used in power stations was imported. Aside the environmental impact of burning the coal to produce our power, we are having to transport around 50 million tonnes of the stuff predominantly from Russia and South Africa; an exercise which in itself has a heavy carbon footprint.

Political

In the first half of the 20th century, most of our crude oil supply came from the USA (two thirds in 1938). In the 1950s, supply started to move to the Middle East and until the Oil Crisis in 1974, at which point the Middle East accounted for more than 80% of our supply, this figure continued to grow. Following the commencement of drilling for North Sea oil in 1975, UK supplies from that area started to increase. In 2006, Norway accounted for 70% of our oil imports and the Middle East had sunk to an unprecedented 2%.

Although we continue to indigenously produce most of the crude oil consumed in the UK, the amount has decreased since 2000, our exports have decreased in line with this, and we now import more oil than we export.

Historically, our energy production has been hit by events such as the Oil Crisis in 1973; the miners’ strike in 1984; and the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, which caused a drop in North Sea oil production due to safety overhauls. The UK refineries developed in the 1950s were built to refine crude oil for use as petrol and fuel oil, reflecting the UK economy since the 1950s. When demand for oil for other purposes has increased, it has been cheaper to import rather than reconfigure the UK refineries.

The UK’s primary fuel source of energy for heating and electricity production is gas. In 2008, our electricity supply comprised gas at 47.5%, coal at 32.1%, nuclear at 12.9%, and others (including renewables) at 7.5%. Contrast with this France’s figure of 75% electricity generation from nuclear power and you can see that we are somewhat reliant on fossil fuels, in particular gas. We have shifted from self-sufficiency in gas to becoming a net gas importer. It is anticipated that we will be 80% dependent on imported gas by 2020. This will leave us more susceptible to gas supply interruptions and price fluctuations than we have been in the past. UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) gas production has increased, but has been unable to keep up with demand and is now in decline, so we are increasingly susceptible to increases in seasonal demand. Admittedly, the increase in the number of import routes in the very recent few years has reduced our vulnerability somewhat. At the global level, it is expected that gas production will peak in the next 10-20 years, at which point supplies will decrease on a global scale, and prices will increase – all against the backdrop of increasing demand.

I had intended to include a section on the issue of oil being tied into our foreign policy vis-à-vis recent interventions in the Middle East. However, my view has always been that the supposed public belief that our foreign policy is tied into oil is, in any case, erroneous, and this seems to be borne out in the research I have carried out (see oil import figures above). If our foreign policy were cynically based around oil, we would be paying a hell of a lot more attention to Norway and meddling far more in Norwegian affairs than in those of the Middle East!

Nevertheless, if you take the view (I don’t) that we do operate a foreign policy in this country’s oil interests (the government’s insistence on the seemingly unpopular stance of maintaining its level of international aid suggests otherwise, as does our intervention in Bosnia – not known for its oil fields), then a move away from such a reliance from oil from the Middle East would mean that we could stop intervening in that region and leave the theocracies to their own devices. If you insist that we are culpable of illegal interventions and killing in the name of oil, then you should surely be arguing strongly in favour of nuclear power.

Economical

Our existing nuclear facilities are nearing the end of their operational lives. By 2015, 6 of the 19 currently operating nuclear reactors in the UK are scheduled to have reached the end of their lives and to be closed down. At that stage, the energy requirements of the country will need to be filled by some other means. The life of some reactors may be extended and energy efficiency measures may go some way to alleviate the problem of the ‘energy gap’, but we need to act now to plan our electricity supplies for the coming years.

I concede that the construction and decommissioning of nuclear reactors is costly, but the running costs are minimal. The costs are chiefly capital outlay costs in the commissioning and associated safety measures which need to be implemented, and then in the decommissioning costs of the reactors at the end of their working lives. Once the reactor is running, the ongoing costs are very low. When compared with traditional fossil fuel power stations, which need constantly feeding with the raw materials, nuclear reactors offer much cheaper running costs.

The fission of an atom of uranium produces 10 million times the energy produced by the combustion of an atom of carbon from coal. Uranium is plentiful. With breeder reactors, we have billions of years worth of energy.

Can’t we just use alternative energy?

I’m all for alternative energy. The more, the better. People who know me have heard me talk enthusiastically (to the point of boring them) about solar roadways, which I still consider to be a great long-term energy solution. However, I am also a realist. Wind power typically costs much more than nuclear – often twice as much per kWh and then you have the issue of NIMBYism – seemingly even with off-shore wind farms.

Small scale, domestic use of alternative energy has to be encouraged wherever possible, and I am currently investigating having solar PV cells installed at home, but larger-scale solar arrays are not really suitable for the UK. There are other alternative means of energy production which do merit further development and investment, but we have to deal with the impending energy gap.

Safety concerns

Chernobyl is the only nuclear incident which harmed members of the public, but it is irrelevant to the debate on nuclear power, since the reactor was a Soviet era reactor without any of the many safeguards built into new reactors. It would be like basing a decision on modern car safety on a Trabant.

Here are some facts and figures I’ve come across in researching this article:

  • The official UN figure for deaths at Chernobyl is 56. However, 4,056 people supposedly died as a result of the indirect, long-term effects of Chernobyl.
  • 5,000 coal miners are killed in China every year in industrial accidents. That’s more people killed in one country in one year than have been killed worldwide by nuclear power since we started to use it.
  • More people have been killed by wind turbines in the USA than have been killed by nuclear power.
  • Radiation levels from the nuclear industry are lower than naturally occurring levels.
  • You are statistically more likely to be killed by your trousers than in a nuclear power incident.

Contrary to what has often been quoted about reactors being uninsurable, insurers are only too happy to take the premiums, precisely because of their high safety standards (the very aspect of the nuclear industry which does make construction costs expensive).

Nuclear materials are transported in specially built containers, which are designed to withstand any collision incident. There are some famous clips of such tests (e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=as3VQeYfd2c).

It is fair to say that there has been criticism of security at nuclear power stations, and security of reactors is certainly of paramount importance. We need independent reviews of security and very tight measures in place to prevent attacks on reactors (which are far more likely to happen through personal infiltration of a site than by a direct attack using weapons, which, considering the measures in place will in all likelihood be unsuccessful).

What next?

If we don’t embrace nuclear power, energy prices will rocket in the next few decades. If we turn our back on nuclear energy, we will have seen our ‘golden age’ of low fuel costs and we will see our domestic bills increase dramatically in the coming years.

The disaster in Fukushima is certainly a chance to review and improve the design of nuclear power stations and this is already happening, but to abandon all the advantages afforded by nuclear power based on ignorance and fear will prove to be far more harmful environmentally, politically, and economically.

Supposedly, 39% of the British public have changed their mind about nuclear power since Fukushima. The danger is that people are missing the true human tragedy of the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, and worrying unduly about unrealistic scenarios of nuclear meltdowns. In reality, considering the reactors at Fukushima were designed 50 years ago, were subjected to the most extreme forces of nature, went offline automatically (as they were designed to do at any sign of seismic activity), and were only let-down by the failure of diesel generators, we should see the nuclear incident in Fukushima as a demonstration that nuclear power is indeed safe. All the subsequent talk of radiation in the media, as though radiation is the bogey man (when you’re subjected to more radiation when eating a banana than you are from living with 50 miles of a nuclear power station for a year) is just misleading and downright irresponsible.

We have enough experience internationally to know which reactor types work well, and to be able to standardise on any new reactors, thereby significantly reducing construction costs and times. We have in the UK made bad decisions in the past about reactor types (favouring the gas cooled AGR reactors over the more successful water-cooled PWR reactors used by the French). We also failed to standardise on reactor types, which added significantly to their costs. But we have learnt from these mistakes.

Unfortunately, politicians are all too keen to pander to public moods rather than attempt to educate. Moreover, those opposed to nuclear power know that their best bet is to delay commissioning through endless public enquiries. In the meantime, the French will continue to embrace nuclear power, with electricity as its fourth largest export. Perhaps it is a good thing that the French company EDF has expressed strong interest in developing Britain’s nuclear power stations into the future… assuming the Luddites don’t get their way!

Sources

Click to access tsunami05.pdf

Click to access file43926.pdf

http://www.dti.gov.uk/energy/statistics/source/trade/page18526.html
http://www.coalimp.org.uk/3.html
http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/nuclear/sizewell-b-terrorism-and-risks
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/16/nuclearpower-nuclear-waste

Click to access Supergen_Nuclear_and_Security.pdf

http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/nuclear-faq.html
http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/cohen.html
http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf50.html
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928042.900-theres-more-to-fear-from-nature-than-nuclear-power.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/mar/16/japan-nuclear-crisis-atomic-energy

Click to access file43846.pdf

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/nuclear/sizewell-b-terrorism-and-risks
http://www.healthandenergy.com/nuclear_power_and_terrorism.htm

Click to access postpn230.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_the_United_Kingdom
http://www.neimagazine.com/story.asp?sectioncode=147&storyCode=2053957
http://www.neimagazine.com/story.asp?storyCode=2053355
http://xkcd.com/radiation/

My recollections of a former boss

Today is Blue Monday by all accounts. Talk about talking yourself into a depression! But there was some sad news I learned of yesterday.

My former boss, M.D. of CAD/CAM software company Licom Systems, Sandy Livingstone, passed away last Wednesday night. He hadn’t been well for the last few months, but it still came as a bit of a shock. It was Sandy who is largely responsible (and guilty!) for me ending up making the living I am today doing what I am doing.

Sandy was a bit of a character to put it mildly – a generous person and a great boss. They broke the mould when they made him, which, given the nature of the business he ended up leading, would be an appropriate metaphor.

It’s worth giving a bit of background on him. From what I remember him saying and the information I can find in the Webosphere, he spent his first six years living in Franco’s Spain before moving to Scotland. He graduated from Glasgow University in Mechanical Engineering and then worked in England, initially designing and testing parts for rocket and jet engine systems and then eventually as Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University). In 1984 he founded Licom Systems, initially selling third-party software, then going on to develop its own CAD/CAM software (Acam then Alphacam).

He was in the reserve army from 1969-1983, attached to a Special Forces regiment for six years and then headed a Signals Troop for eight years, when, as he put it “I got too old for parachuting at night and sleeping in snow-filled ditches”. He was a competitor for four years in an army pentathlon competition (CIOR), which was held across all the NATO countries in turn, and went on to become team coach and manager for the UK team.

I first met him when I worked for a translation agency based in Leamington. We had been tasked with translating the help files for the Alphacam software into one or two foreign languages. As a translation agency, part of our remit was to check the translations (often performed by sub-contracted translators) for completeness and accuracy. It would have been around 1996 I suppose and the World Wide Web and PCs in general for the average business were still in their infancy. Having submitted some work to Licom, we were asked to call them to discuss some of the work we had done. Not to put too fine a point on it, we (or rather our translator) had ruined the help files (I won’t go into details, as it’s quite boring). In any case, we had failed to spot a key problem in the files we supplied and it was our responsibility to put it right.

My then boss and I went to Licom to meet Sandy, and we were quite taken aback by this tall, deep-voiced, moustached, and well-dressed businessman, who was very welcoming and yet gave the impression that you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. We had expected a bit of a bollocking, which would have been well-deserved, but instead, he took time out to explain to us how help files were built and where we had gone wrong. Not once did he raise his voice, but he calmly took us through the process whilst puffing away on his cigar. We left the office quite awestruck by the impression he, and the office, which was based in a beautiful old Victorian house (the old cathedral provost’s house in a leafy suburb of Coventry), had made on us. Once we’d fixed everything and the job was delivered, I had no more dealings with Licom in that job.

A couple of years later, I was working for IBM and suddenly received an external call from a Charles Wilby from Licom (one of the then directors). He had seen my CV on my website, and thought I had the perfect skills set they were looking for to fill the job of Language Support Manager at Licom, which was to be the task of managing the translation process of Alphacam’s software, help files, and associated documentation. It was a job which Sandy himself had done up to that point, but which was now taking up too much of his time. I was settled in at IBM by this time, and wasn’t particularly interested in moving to a new job, but said I’d pop in on at Licom’s office on the way home from work to discuss the role. I would be in casual clothes though (IBM had a smart casual policy).

I arrived at the office and had more of a very pleasant chat than an interview with the three directors. I could tell they were interested and I was certainly interested in the position, but I was wary of moving from an employer like IBM to a small software company, so when they brought up the subject of remuneration, I gave a figure quite significantly above my then salary. They didn’t bat an eyelid. I then raised the fact that IBM (in those days at least – I don’t know whether this still applies) paid a month’s salary in advance. Again, that wasn’t a problem. He arranged it so I received a month’s extra pay to cover the transitional period. And so, within a relatively short period, I handed in my notice at IBM (they couldn’t match the salary increase, and I didn’t expect them to, given the difference in roles) and started work at Licom.

On my first day at Licom, Sandy met me and showed me around the place. he showed me the dining room with the large table (which doubled as a meeting room) and explained that he was quite insistent that staff took a full hour for lunch and got away from their desks. Lunches at Licom were incredible. They laid on a full cooked meal (at no cost), complete with wine and a cheeseboard, cooked by the two lovely and friendly housekeepers, Jean and Jeanette. The building was beautiful, the garden just as much so, the place had character, and the staff were all nice, friendly people. It soon became clear that people didn’t tend to leave the place if they didn’t have to. Visitors were always very strongly impressed by the place. Staff turnover was minimal.

I had originally been taken on with a view to me helping out in the IT department at the time alongside my main job, but in the end, I was too busy with my main task and a dedicated second IT staff member was recruited. As it transpired, I had pretty much exhausted my tasks on the language translation side of things within the first three or four months of me being there and I was short of things to do. This coincided with the marketing person leaving (he produced the company brochures and website). Sandy asked me if I’d be interested in taking on part of the marketing role, and I accepted on the provision that I could later turn it down. I took to the website side of things pretty quickly and then stepped into web application development by getting my hands dirty. I was less convinced by the role of producing brochures, as I learnt pretty quickly that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, so I dropped that task eventually (having picked up some useful DTP skills on the way) and we brought in an outside agency to produce the brochures. Sandy was completely fine with that.

When my father-in-law died, just a short time after I hard started working there, Sandy told me to go and spend time with my wife’s family. There was no concern about absence and no pay or holiday entitlement deducted for the week or so I was away.

Business-wise, Sandy was a shrewd businessman. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and would call a spade a spade. He encouraged open dialogue at work and was very open to ideas, and even threw ideas out to us at lunchtimes as a sounding board. He had a lot of respect for the views of his staff, and would take them on board in any decisions he made. He had Valerie (one of the directors) to keep him in check occasionally – a task which she seemed to relish! It was quite funny watching them argue things out sometimes, but at least they were happy to do so in front of the staff – perhaps in case anyone had anything to add!

On a typical Friday afternoon, just after lunch, and if the support department was quiet, Sandy would put a call out on the phone system, announcing, “This is your captain speaking. Abandon ship!” Then he would actually walk around the office saying, “haven’t you got families to go home to?” and tell everyone to go home. In a typical year, staff received a substantial Christmas bonus in their November pay packet (equivalent to nearly one month’s pay). Christmas parties were laid on for staff and families and children’s entertainers were called in to keep the kids happy. I remember seeing Sandy’s smile when he saw how much the families were enjoying it. It was a wonderful to work there.

My other memories of him are the smell of his cigar smoke (God, he loved his cigars in the days when you could smoke in an office), his fondness for Gin and Tonic, and his booming bass singing voice and occasional spectacular cough. He had a way of clearing his nasal passages which was strangely a bit of a trademark too (in an endearing way).

But of course all good things must come to an end.

When Sandy was on the verge of retiring, he looked into possible buyers for the company. In the end it was my current employer which bought the company back in 2001. Sandy remained on as Chairman for several months after the takeover in an advisory capacity, but finally bowed out. In the intervening period, staff morale plummeted as, slowly but surely things started to change and all the luxuries we were used to were withdrawn. Looking back, it would be easy to blame my current employer, and many did, but in all fairness, Licom was somewhere very special, with an informal character and a modus operandi which broke many more traditional business rules and didn’t fit in with the larger corporate approach to business. It wasn’t the fault of the new owners, but the tensions were palpable at the start. The changes were painful for many and some concluded that the ‘good times’ had come to an end and jumped ship.

Finally, the Coventry office was closed down during the recent recession and many talented people were made redundant. I can only imagine how Sandy felt about that, as I saw him rarely once he had retired. The last time I saw him, I took a CD around to his house. He had asked me to help him prepare a CD of his choices of music for his funeral. I was happy to oblige, albeit in a sad task. He offered to pay me for my time, but there was no way that was going to happen after he had treated us all so well. Sandy’s employees had a sense of loyalty to him and to the company. It was a pure demonstration for me of how to run a company: treat your staff well, make their working environment pleasant and relaxed and they’ll repay you with loyalty, hard-work, and a willingness to go the extra mile.

He was a special man who had a deep impact on many peoples’ lives and the comments I’ve heard from fellow former Licom colleagues indicate that this is a view which was shared by many.

I drank a toast to him last night in the form of a nice single malt Dalwhinnie, although he would have much preferred me to have had a cigar and a Gin & Tonic! My thoughts are with Maggie, his wife, and his daughter and family.

Today is Blue Monday by all accounts. Talk about talking yourself into a depression! But there was some sad news I learned of yesterday. 

My former boss, MD of CAD/CAM software company Licom Systems, Sandy Livingstone, passed away last Wednesday night. He hadn’t been well for the last few

months, but it still came as a bit of a shock. It was Sandy who is largely responsible (and guilty!) for me ending up making the living I am today doing what

I am doing.

Sandy was a bit of a character to put it mildly – a generous person and a great boss. They broke the mould when they made him, which, given the nature of the

business he ended up leading, would be an appropriate metaphore.

It’s worth giving a bit of background on him. From what I remember him saying and the information I can find in the Webosphere, he spent his first six years

living in Franco’s Spain before moving to Scotland. He graduated from Glasgow University in Mechnical Engineering and then worked in England, initially

designing and testing parts for rocket and jet engine systems and then eventually as Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Lanchester Polytechnic (now

Coventry University). In 1984 he founded Licom Systems, initially selling third party software, then going on to develop its own CAD/CAM software (Acam then

Alphacam).

He was in the reserve army from 1969-1983), attached to a Special Forces regiment for six years and then headed a Signals Troop for eight years, when, as he

put it “I got too old for parachuting at night and sleeping in snow-filled ditches”. He was a competitor for four years in an army pentathlon competition

(CIOR), which was held across all the NATO countries in turn, and went on to become team coach and manager for the UK team.

I first met him when I worked for a translation agency based in Leamington. We had been tasked with translating the help files for the Alphacam software into

one or two foreign languages. As a translation agency, part of our remit was to check the translations (often performed by sub-contracted translators) for

completeness and accuracy. It would have been around 1996 I suppose and the world wide web for the average business was still in its infancy. Having

submitted some work to Licom, we were asked to call them to discuss some of the work we had done. Not to put too fine a point on it, we (or rather our

translator) had ruined the help files (I won’t go into details, as it’s quite boring). In any case, we had failed to spot a key problem in the files we

supplied and it was our responsibility to put it right.

My then boss and I went to Licom to meet Sandy, and we were quite taken aback by this tall, deep-voiced, moustached, and well-dressed businessman, who was

very welcoming and yet gave the impression that you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. We had expected a bit of a bollocking, which would have been

well-deserved, but instead, he took time out to explain to us how help files were built and where we had gone wrong. Not once did he raise his voice, but he

calmly took us through the process whilst puffing away on his cigar. We left the office quite awestruck by the impression he, and the office, which was based

in a beautiful old Victorian house (the old cathedral provost’s house in a leafy suburb of Coventry), had made on us. Once we’d fixed everything and the job

was delivered, I had no more dealings with Licom in that job.

A couple of years later, I was working for IBM and suddenly received an external call from a Charles Wilby from Licom (one of the then directors). He had

seen my CV on my website, and thought I had the perfect skills set they were looking for to fill the job of Language Support Manager at Licom, which was to

be the task of managing the translation process of Alphacam’s software, help files, and associated documentation. I was settled in at IBM by this time, and

wasn’t particularly interested in moving to a new job, but said I’d pop in on at Licom’s office on the way home from work to discuss the role. I would be in

casual clothes though (IBM had a smart casual policy).

I arrived at the office and had more of a very pleasant chat than an interview with the three directors. I could tell they were interested and I was

certainly interested in the position, but I was wary of moving from an employer like IBM to a small software company, so when they brought up the subject of

remuneration, I gave a figure quite significantly above my then salary. They didn’t bat an eyelid. I then raised the fact that IBM (in those days at least –

I don’t know whether this still applies) paid a month’s salary in advance. Again, that wasn’t a problem. He arranged it so I received a month’s extra pay to

cover the transitional period. And so, with a relatively short period, I handed in my notice at IBM (they couldn’t match the salary increase, and I didn’t

expect them to, given the difference in roles) and started work at Licom.

On my first day at Licom, Sandy met me and showed me around the place. he showed me the dining room with the large table (which doubled as a meeting room)

and explained that he was quite insistant that staff took a full hour for lunch and got away from their desks. Lunches at Licom were incredible. They laid on

a full cooked meal (at no cost), complete with wine and a cheeseboard, cooked by the two lovely and friendly housekeepers, Jean and Jeanette. The building

was beautiful, the garden just as much so, the place had character, and the staff were all nice, friendly people. It soon became clear that people didn’t

tend to leave the place if they didn’t have to. Staff turnover was minimal.

I had originally been taken on with a view to me helping out in the IT department at the time alongside my main job, but in the end, I was too busy with my

main task and a dedicated second IT staff member was recruited. As it transpired, I had pretty much exhausted my tasks on the language translation side of

things within the first three or four months of me being there and I was short of things to do. This coincided with the marketing person leaving (he produced

the company brochures and website). Sandy asked me if I’d be interested in taking on part of the marketing role, and I accepted on the provision that I could

later turn it down. I took to the website side of things pretty quickly and then stepped into web application development by getting my hands dirty. I was

less convinced by the role of producing brochures, as I learnt pretty quickly that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, so I dropped that task

eventually (having picked up some useful DTP skills on the way) and we brought in an outside agency to produce the brochures. Sandy was completely fine with

that.

When my father-in-law died, just a short time after I hard started working there, Sandy told me to go and spend time with my wife’s family. There was no

concern about absence and no pay or holiday entitlement deducted for the week or so I was away.

Business-wise, Sandy was a shrewd businessman. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and would call a spade a spade. He encouraged open dialogue at work and was very

open to ideas, and even threw ideas out to us at lunchtimes as a sounding board. He had a lot of respect for the views of his staff, and would take them on

board in any decisions he made. He had Valerie (one of the directors) to keep him in check occasionally – a task which she seemed to relish! It was quite

funny watching them argue things out sometimes, but at least they were happy to do so in front of the staff – perhaps in case anyone had anything to add!

On a typical Friday afternoon, just after lunch, and if the support department was quiet, Sandy would put a call out on the phone system, announcing, “This

is your captain speaking. Abandon ship!” Then he would actually walk around the office saying, “haven’t you got families to go home to?” and tell everyone to

go home. In a typical year, staff received a substantial Christmas bonus in their November pay packet (equivalent to nearly one month’s pay). Christmas

parties were laid on for staff and families and children’s entertainers were called in to keep the kids happy. I remember seeing Sandy’s smile when he saw

how much the families were enjoying it. It was a dream to work there, and of course all good things must come to an end.

My other memories of him are the smell of his cigar smoke (God, he loved his cigars in the days when you could smoke in an office), his fondness for Gin and

Tonic, and his booming bass singing voice and occasional spectacular cough. He had a way of clearing his nasal passages which was strangely a bit of a

trademark too (in an endearing way).

When Sandy was on the verge of retiring, he looked into possible buyers for the company. In the end it was my current employer which bought the company back

in 2001. Sandy remained on as Chairman for several months after the takeover in an advisory capacity, but finally bowed out. In the intervening period, staff

morale plummeted as, slowly but surely things started to change and all the luxuries we were used to were withdrawn. Looking back, it would be easy to blame

my current employer, but in all fairness, Licom was somewhere very special, with an informal character and a modus operandi which broke many more traditional

business rules and didn’t fit in with the larger corporate approach to business. It wasn’t the fault of the new owners, but the tensions were palpable at the

start. The changes were painful for many and some concluded that the ‘good times’ had come to an end and jumped ship.

Finally, the Coventry office was closed down during the recent recession and many talented people were made redundant. I can only imagine how Sandy felt

about that, as I saw him rarely once he had retired. The last time I saw him, I took a CD around to his house. He had asked me to help him prepare a CD of

his choices of music for his funeral. I was happy to oblige, albeit in a sad task. He offered to pay me for my time, but there was no way that was going to

happen after he had treated us all so well. Sandy’s employees had a sense of loyalty to him and to the company. It was a pure demonstration for me of how to

run a company: treat your staff well, make their working environment pleasant and relaxed and they’ll repay you with loyalty, hard-work, and a willingness to

go the extra mile.

He was a special man who had a deep impact on many peoples’ lives and the comments I’ve heard from fellow former Licom colleagues indicate that this is a

view which was shared by many.

I drank a toast to him last night in the form of a nice single malt Dalwhinnie, although he would have much preferred me to have had a cigar and a Gin &

Tonic! My thoughts are with Maggie, his wife, and his daughter and family.

What’s New and 2010 in review

Hello 2011! Can’t say I’ll miss 2010. The year was pretty bad for many members of our extended family, friends, and acquaintances. A lot of people we care about lost loved ones.

For close family it’s been ok. Tristan continues to grow up faster than a two-year old should, and he’s really started to show signs of a wicked sense of humour and is constantly working on ways to try to psychologically outmaneuver us. His big sisters have both been great with him. They’re both doing well at school. Murron is now well into year 8 and still enjoying school life. Philippa is in year 5 and still finds things a breeze at her school, to the point where I think I’m going to have to request that she is given harder tasks. Philippa also took up playing the trombone last term, but her teacher failed to turn up for five of her lessons, which we thought was a bit lousy – must have speaks with the school.

I suppose the highlight of the year for me in terms of adventures was my motorbike trip with my mate in September around Europe, which allowed me to revisit places I’d lived and worked in Switzerland twenty years ago, as well as taking in some pretty spectacular scenery (and some bloody awful weather on a couple of occasions) from the seat of my motorbike.

We had just the right balance of great motorcycling, stress, spectacular scenery, falling-out, meeting new people, and just a few days to escape normal family life and behave like we were twenty years younger. Of course, I was really missing Emma and the kids by the time we headed home. I don’t know how Ewan and Charlie coped being away from their families for so long!

Musically, it’s been a mixed year too. There was some unpleasantness in July when tensions seemingly arose out of nowhere within my covers band, Ministry Of Beaver, and I was put in a position where I had to choose between two friends. In the end, I had no other basis on which to make a decision other than to be objective in terms of availability, and in the process, I played a part in upsetting someone who’d become a good friend and who went on to react very badly towards the situation. It is not nice to see friends suddenly turn on each other and become sworn enemies. It is worse to feel like one is ‘caught in the middle’. It is worse still to read very bitter correspondence between said friends, knowing that there was no possible future reconciliation, musical or otherwise. In the event, the band reverted to the line-up I had initially joined and things seem to have got back to normal within the band. I’m still sad whenever I think that I will probably never work alongside individuals with whom I’ve formed a musical bond.

On that note (and a more positive one), it was nice to re-establish links with former BAiT bass player, Andy and to meet up with him and other former BAIT member, Chris with a view to more original songwriting. It’s early days still and I’m still not convinced we have an overall master plan (perhaps that’s the way I like it), but it’s good to be working on new original stuff with old mates again. From my perspective, it’s sad that my friend and former keyboard player Nick can’t be involved, but the fact is that he’s now happily settled with his wife and kids in Norfolk. “Life moves on…” as the BAiT song goes…

Professionally, it’s been a steady year. I’ve continued to develop web applications within our company and am fortunate to work with some great people in the Marketing Team. I’ve very much settled into working from home now, having done so for a year and a half or so. On the one hand, I do miss the people and friends I made; on the other, I don’t have the commute, travel costs, and office politics. I also find working from home far more productive. I know that some people can’t cope with it, but I’ve settled in fine and I find I get much more done. I don’t have the ‘water cooler’ conversations, the office room chats, the meetings, or the phone call disturbances, which used to consume quite a substantial amount of time. In essence, I found working in an office far less conducive to work than home. I still have my Friday lunchtime down the pub to meet up with an old work friend (the other regulars having found employment during the course of the year which prevents them from making the Friday lunchtime slot), so I’ve managed to hold onto some semblance of seeing people during the working week outside the family.

We even got a slight rise towards the end of the year (we did have a bigger pay cut a couple of years ago), but it was unexpected and therefore to be welcomed. I was also surprised to receive a company award for outstanding achievement, thanks to my American boss who’d put my name forward for the award. Nice to be recognised like that, although I maintain that it’s really down to working in a great team of people. That may sound ‘cheesy’ to our British sensibilities, but I’m sincere.

Well, Christmas is all but over (although officially it’s still Christmas until 5th January). It’s been a pleasant enough Christmas this year. We’ve hardly left the house at all and have probably had the usual share of naughty food and drink. The kids bought me ‘The Fry Chronicles’ – Stephen Fry’s second volume of his autobiography, and I read that through pretty rapidly and then decided that I wanted to read the first volume, Moab Is My Washpot.

I think I may have made the leap to electronic books now. Having read Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities on my iPod Touch a few months ago, I bought Moab Is My Washpot in Kindle format and downloaded the Kindle client for iPod/iPhone. I’m working my way through it at the moment.

We’ve had Emma’s mum and her step-dad here since New Year’s Eve and had a good time with them. We had a very pleasant meal out with them today – a carvery at The Jailhouse in the centre of Nuneaton – the first time I’ve visited the place, although Emma’s been there before when her mum’s been down and they’ve done the girlie shopping thing. Very nice place – highly recommended.

Well, it’s time for me to enjoy a quick single malt Scotch whisky before retiring for the evening. I have a very nice 15-year-old Dalwhinnie with my name on it upstairs (from a brewery we visited on a family holiday in 1983). And to think I thought I’d been put off whisky forever after a drinking binge in Potsdam in 1992 involving too many Polish people and too much whisky! Cheers!

Atheism is bad for you

Well, Popey has kicked up quite a stir with his visit, notably over his negative comments about atheism. Whether or not he has been misunderstood or taken out of context is subject to debate. What is not up for debate is the tired old connection some religionists make between mass murderers and atheism.

"Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot were atheists… therefore atheism can lead to mass murder."

Boll-bloody-ocks!

Firstly, the assertion that all of the above were atheists is demonstrably false. They may have exploited religion to meet their political agendas and even had their own understandings of their respective religions, but they never exercised in the name of atheism. The complete opposite is the case.

Just to take the case of Hitler (the one about whom I know most), Hitler went to great lengths to create a German church, stripping out the Jewish influence and building on the Jew-hating elements of the Catholic faith. His hatred of Jews was in all likelihood fostered from birth in his Catholic upbringing. He made peace with the Catholic Church. Mussolini, Franco, and the Vichy regime of France (all allied with Hitler in the Axis) were steeped in Catholicism. German soldiers in the Reichswehr fought with the words "Gott mit uns" (God With Us) on their belt buckles.

Secondly, more importantly, and more obvious to anyone with half a brain, the causal connection is laughably erroneous. Saying that Hitler did wicked things because he was an atheist is as ridiculous as saying he did them because he was a vegetarian or a teetotaler, or because he once ate a slightly sour grapefruit.

Historically, the justification for mass murder and genocide has been openly claimed to be divinely inspired or commanded far more often than it has been attributed to atheism. I challenge anyone to name a mass murderer who has specifically acted in the name of atheism (as opposed to some political doctrine, often founded on the back of a religious or cultural beliefs).

There are good atheists and bad atheists. There are good theists and bad theists.

Speaking (or rather writing) as an atheist, I don’t need scripture to tell me what is right and wrong. The fact that religionists will ask ‘whence comes your morality, if not through scripture’, I say ’tish and pish’! A good atheist’s morals will in all likelihood be very similar to those of a good Christian. The difference is, they do what they do because it is the right thing to do… not because they’ll burn forever in Hell’s flames if they don’t. The humanitarian values adopted by modern Christianity (which has chosen to abandon some of the more unsavoury aspects of its faith) predate that faith, but are also common in other faiths. Religion does not have a monopoly on ‘goodness’. We ‘good’ atheists believe that we have one shot at life and that’s it. There is nothing before and nothing afterwards. This life matters. This life counts. Live it to the best of your abilities and treat other people the way you would like to be treated. That is, quite literally, the "Golden Rule".

Europe Bike Trip – Part 8 – Gravelines, France to Home

The advantage of having the morning on my own meant that I could visit some of the places I’ve always wanted to visit around the English Channel on the French side, but never really had the chance to do. So, I headed firstly along to Dunkirk to take a look at the beaches there, which had been used for the evacuation of British and French forces in Operation Dynamo in May/June 1940. It was quite something to be there with that sense of history in front of me, but I was all too aware how quickly time moves on. There were no large monuments to the significance of the site and Dunkirk is, to all intents and purposes, just another French town.

My final part of the trip was an excursion around Calais and to the beach there, following out to the infamous Sangatte, an otherwise nice village whose name has been tarnished by the presence of the detention centre there (which I couldn’t find) and finally Cap Blanc-Nez, with a great view across the channel to the white cliffs of Dover.

I’d been there a few minutes enjoying the view when Chris phoned to say he had arrived at the port, so I headed straight back to board the ferry. Following a nicer crossing back to Dover, we made the journey back home.

Distance: 291 miles
Route: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=http:%2F%2Fwww.johnchivers.com%2Fkml%2F2010-09-15.kml&sll=47.958701,4.693685&sspn=10.685695,19.753418&ie=UTF8&z=7