29 November, 2014

Christmas in the city

We had a very productive Saturday in London last week. We decided to combine seeing the Christmas lights with progressing our Christmas shopping.

First off we visited Oxford Street and saw the lights there—globes strung high up in the sky. I imagine that they would have looked really impressive at night, as if they were free floating in the darkness. We spent a lot of time in good old John Lewis and managed to buy quite a few presents there. The Christmas foodie gift section just has so much lovely stuff—beautifully presented chocolates, sweets, biscuits, preserves...the list goes on. And the range and choice in the Oxford Street branch is amazing—such a revelation for those of us from the provinces! We also spent some time in New Look on Oxford Street—our daughter needed some new clothes and our local branch of this shop doesn't have the teenage range in store. We collapsed on a chair while she hummed and hawed about what she might buy. I hate clothes shopping and try to get in and out of clothes shops as quickly as possible. But not so my daughter.

Then it was off to Covent Garden. The festive trappings were pretty impressive there too—a huge silver reindeer dominated. We were aiming to see the real reindeer there as well, but didn't make it in time. I'm not sure we would have got a look in anyway—I imagine that a single reindeer in Covent Garden in the run up to Christmas would be besieged. We browsed the stalls in the market—lots of pretty things on offer—and spent a few minutes watching the opera singer who was busking in front of diners at one of the open-air restaurants. She was quite unusual—a fantastic classical singer, yet dressed in ripped jeans and T-shirt with brightly dyed hair. Not a combination that you see often.

We finished off the day by wandering around the boutique shops in Seven Dials, then had an early dinner at Prezzo on St Martin’s Lane before heading back home.

I love that we live close enough to the capital to visit for the day, but I am also very glad that we don’t reside there. It’s just too busy and polluted to tackle on an everyday basis.

22 November, 2014

The changing world of work

I read with interest the recent furore surrounding Greencore. This sandwich manufacturer, which supplies ready made sandwiches to several of the big supermarket chains, hit the news because it had been in Hungary hiring staff, when local unemployed people in Northampton (the factory's base) knew nothing about the vacancies. People were outraged that an employer was looking abroad, rather than locally in the first instance, to hire its staff.

However, what really struck me about this news story was something rather different. First off, I was somewhat surprised that sandwiches were made by people on a production line, having naively assumed that such an activity would be mechanised. It was also interesting that despite the long hours, low pay, and cold conditions that the work entailed, one employee (a graduate from Poland) considered the job "a great opportunity". I know a number of people in similar situations -- highly-qualified graduates from across the EU who work in low paid roles in the catering and hotel business. There simply isn't the work available in their specialist areas in their home countries, or indeed in this country, hence they are forced to  find work where they can. What counts as "a great opportunity", then, is very much relative -- dependent on the particular circumstances in which you find yourself.

Things have changed a lot over the past three decades or so. Graduating in the very early nineties, I was just at the start of the employment situation becoming tougher. Having a good degree from a good university was no longer a passport to anywhere you wanted to go in the world of work. Ten years earlier, and things were quite different. A colleague recently told the story of how he dropped out of university at the end of his first year and then managed to get a job as a radiographer (without any experience in the area). Several years later, he returned to university and studied for an undergraduate and a Masters degree simultaneously! That kind of trajectory simply wouldn't be possible in today's world.

All of this makes me feel nervous for my own children. I (and they) assume that they will go to university but where, exactly, will that lead them? Quite possibly into low paid and/or unskilled roles with few prospects. Or perhaps halfway across the globe in search of something better. Or maybe, just maybe, things will have come full circle over the next decade and the world will again be their oyster.

15 November, 2014

The changing definition of 'friend'

A while back I heard an article on the radio about a woman who had set herself the target of phoning a certain number of her Facebook friends over the period of a year. Her aim was to reconnect with people she hadn't spoken to for years. She missed the kind of relationship which she (and I) remembered from her teenage years where she would get in from school and then pick up the phone and chat to one of her friends. She missed the intimacy and nuanced voice-to-voice conversations that you can have by phone, but which are almost impossible to have on line.

What surprised me, though, was the number of people she was proposing to phone. I can't recall exact details, but I know that it was in the high tens. How could all these people be friends, I wondered, and how on earth would she find that she had anything to say to all of them. Conversations by phone are considerably more in depth and demanding than communicating via someone's Facebook wall, for example.

This got me thinking about the nature of friendship and the change in the meaning of the word 'friend' that has been precipitated by Facebook and other social networking sites. In my book a friend is someone I know well, who I can trust, who I have things in common with, who I can sit down and really talk to over a cup of coffee. But a Facebook friend is none of these things -- not by definition, anyway. It is possible that a 'real' friend (as per my definition) can be a Facebook friend too, but a Facebook friend does not have to have any of the characteristics of a 'real' friend. And that, of course, is how people manage to have so many Facebook friends. . .but they're not really friends at all!

I've noticed something similar with LinkedIn. I had someone connect to me the other day who categorised me as one of their friends. This is someone who used to work in the same unit as me. We didn't work together as such, and we certainly weren't friends. Not in my book, anyway -- we had no social relationship separate from work. In my book we were colleagues. Yet this colleague is twenty years younger than me and so I wonder whether, being fully of the social networking generation, his definition of 'friend' is simply different from mine. His definition is informed by Facebook, and mine is not.

So, it seems that the on-line world really is affecting all aspects of our lives -- even the semantics of concepts as old and basic to human nature as friendship.

08 November, 2014


I have just finished reading Michael Frayn’s novel ‘Skios’. I loved it! It is an (almost farcical) comedy, yet with a serious point, if you care to look at it that way.

The basic plot involves two entirely different men who swap identities at the airport on the imaginary Greek island of Skios. One, the happy-go-lucky, up-for-anything Oliver Fox, sees a sign for one ‘Dr Norman Wilfred’ being held up by an attractive young woman and decides to take a chance, adopting the mantle of the esteemed academic, who is guest speaker of honour at the illustrious Fred Toppler Foundation. Meanwhile the ‘real’ Dr Wilfred unwittingly becomes Oliver Fox.

There follows a chain of hilarious consequences, in which Oliver Fox finds it remarkably easy to step into Dr Wilfred’s shoes, and soon has everyone at the Fred Toppler Foundation hanging on his every word. Meanwhile, Dr Wilfred becomes increasingly perplexed, finding himself marooned in a high-end holiday villa with a hysterical woman who appears to think that he is a rapist.

Despite the farcical elements of ‘Skios’, the plot is almost believable, which is what makes the book so funny. Frayn takes a stab at the world of academia, highlighting the fact that, once you’re well established, people will worship you, no matter how ridiculous the things you say. He also subtly questions the relevance of (some) academic theories to everyday life, as illustrated by the following extract: '...There was never any point in replying to this kind of nonsense. Except to make one small simple point. "Thirteen point seven billion years ago," he said." / He suddenly went blind...Her towel, he saw, as it fell off and the world returned. / "And that," she said. "You saw that coming, did you? Thirteen point seven billion years ago?"'

I would recommend ‘Skios’ very highly, especially if you’re looking for a short, funny and not too taxing read. With laugh-out-loud lines such as: '"Are any of us, in fact, anybody?" said somebody', how can you resist?