Friday, 29 February 2008

The Politics of Post Offices

It's funny how services that people don't often use, but have a central place in the popular imagination, arouse such intense passions. Rural railways are a classic example, with locals protesting against the closure of a service carrying empty trains because no-one uses them. Yet people like them to be there. (Sometimes, of course, it's because the service is useless, or unmarketed, or both, but that's another story).

The other classic is the Post Office. The current proposals to close 2,500 offices has unleashed an almighty political row. Now, before I go any further, I must come clean here: I'm the son of a Postmaster, and grew up happily helping my mother put together the window displays for our little sub-office. I'm not quite sure what the customers made of my snowman, made for the Christmas window out of a washing-up liquid bottle covered in cotton wool, or the Springtime duckling, made with sheets of bright yellow tissue paper. Perhaps they thought it was sweet. Or just tacky. Or perfectly fine for somewhere in a rather small town in the middle nowhere. (And we are talking the 60s, here...)

But closing a Post Office clearly hits a raw nerve. Largely, the problem is that so much of the basic trade - pensions, family allowances, benefits - which were the staples for our family business, are now deposited electronically, directly into people's bank accounts. In rural areas, they still perform a banking role for many people, and so are still regarded as the cornerstone of the community, but in the towns and cities it's no longer the case. Driving tax discs are now done on-line or by post, as are Savings products. Even Post Office Ltd now sells its products on-line.

That pretty much leaves Royal Mail - much of which must still be done through a Post Office, especially if (as at Christmas) you are sending it abroad. Ebay has been a lifesaver for some outlets, but selling stamps has never been that profitable. Handling licence applications is still good business, but hard work - as I can testify, having stood in a long queue while the staff member wearily explains to the customer that they have filled in the form wrongly, or forgotten to bring in some key piece of documentation, or both.

The Post Office is beginning to sell other services, like Bureau de Change (and they do offer excellent rates), insurance and even telephone services and broadband. But if the sales environment is anything like my local branch in Earl's Court, that's a hard task. (Things are rather nicer in Kensington, but then they would be, wouldn't they?)

But back to the politics. The plans - by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform - to shut 2,500 post offices have been undermined by the disclosure that one in five of all ministers, and seven members of the Cabinet, have joined campaigns to save specific local branches. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives - many of whom represent rural constituencies, which have either lost their Post Offices, or risk losing the few remaining - have latched onto this fulsomely, accusing Ministers of hypocrisy, and of trying to save those in Labour constituencies while closing offices in those held by its opponents. All great stuff. Doubtless, the pundits will have a great time, mapping closures against constituencies...

In the meantime, I now have to go to post a letter by Recorded Delivery (I think the marketing people have called it, "Signed for.."), so must leave you to make a quick walk, and possibly a long queue, at my local office. Sadly, there's not a cotton-wool snowman or a tissue-paper duckling to admire while I wait...

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Lost in Ikea...

What have Ikea against West London? There are branches on the North Circular, Croydon and Thurrock, but for some reason, nothing yet for us West London folks.

That's a real pain if you want to buy their furniture - the North Circular never being the best way of getting into the mood for retail therapy, and the drive to Croydon is simply indescribable in polite language. (You can go by tube and tram, but only if you're prepared to risk a hernia lugging your purchases on the way back).

But West London's loss does give me an excuse for blogging about another Ikea - in Barcelona. (Well, if I can’t be local I might as well go a long way away...?)

Not that you’d know where you were from the design, layout and content of the store. From the iconic dark blue and yellow fascia to the Scandinavian-style menu, you could be anywhere in Europe. Only the internal signage – in Catalan – gives the location away. Even the punters look the same (except maybe a little better dressed) - extended families on an afternoon out, young couples (kids in the crèche), gay and lesbian couples, and the odd puzzled looking foreigner.

And like every Ikea, it evokes strong reactions. Now, we’re very faithful customers for its range of reliable basics, like bookcases, storage, soft furnishings and lighting. But equally, as a shopping experience – especially on Saturday – it comes pretty close to the ultimate definition of stress.

Firstly, there’s the long, slow winding layout. Then there's the search along those huge, intimidating rows of warehouse shelves before, finally, reaching check-out queues that could test even the British sense of fair play.

In fact, the whole thing resembles one huge board game. If you’re clever, you can short-cut the showroom route (by-passing kitchens and offices). But take a wrong turn and, nightmarishly, you seem to have gone back fifteen spaces, to dining, or beds, or wherever. And on our trip, this is pretty much what happened to us: we reached the final slalom of the ‘market’ section at the end, only to discover that the item we wanted was right at the beginning. And I mean, right at the beginning. Return to ‘Start’. Do not pass ‘Go’. Do not collect €200.

Literally re-tracing our steps felt like a salmon that had taken a wrong turn, not entirely helped by my other half’s helpful comment that ‘I’ve always been swimming against the tide’. Well, maybe. But not in Ikea. Not on a Saturday. And not right back to the beginning, either, earning astonished and sometimes pitying stares from our fellow Ikearistos in the process. It felt like we’d thrown the dice and been sent down one very long snake, some hideous nightmare in which we were condemned to wander the showrooms of Ikea forever.

Fortunately, thanks to a very nice store assistant and a conversation in mixed Spanish and pidgin Catalan, we managed to short-cut our route back to the check-out. We escaped a shade under three hours, purchases in hand, with some sanity left and our dignity intact.

The sense of relief was palpable, as we emerged, squinting into the sunlight. We’d played the game of Ikea, and won.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Settling down with a nice book

Once the post-Christmas urge to get fit and healthy wears off (and let's face it, the cold snap has already put off lots of joggers), thoughts turn to more sedate ways of enjoying yourself - and you can still, with the right book, consider it an act of self-improvement - just one with no risk of a sprained ankle or torn ligament. Besides, I've still got some book tokens left from Christmas (yes, I have the kind of family that still gives me book tokens for Christmas. Clearly, they must think I'm still in need of self-improvement).

So, where to go? Here in Earl's Court, we've lost our only decent book shop - a former Waterstones, now M&S Simply Food. The nearest venue now is another Waterstones, on High Street Kensington, and further west there's one in Ealing. If you are feeling in need of something larger, then there's the huge Waterstone's (formerly Simpsons) on Piccadilly. For an alternative to Waterstone's - and they are becoming rather ubiquitous - you could try the huge Borders on Oxford Street.

For something a little more inteersting, you could always browse along the bookshops in Charing Cross Road. Even if it isn't quite as portrayed in that wonderful film '84 Charing Cross Road', there are still some wonderful little bookshops (as well as some chains and, of course,the venerable Foyles).

Of course, for something even more specialist you could try Gay's the Word in Marchmont Street, specialising, unsurprisingly in material about gay and lesbian life, but also including material by authors who just happen to be gay (and may not appreciate being pigeon-holed, I guess). It's one of those institutions (and this is an institution) that is under constant threat of closure, so your custom would be appreciated.

Travellers should look no further than Stanfords or the National Map Centre (NMC) for material to whet their travelling appetite (both sell a good deal more than maps) and the NMC is excellent for books about transport more generally too, especially the history of the London Underground. Politicos should find all they need in the Westminster Bookshop, including signed copies of many items if you want to impress someone. (Though I guess it depends who has signed it...)

There. Plenty of ideas - all you need now if the comfy chair, and someone to bring you cups of tea while you tuck in.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Sunset over West London

I'm lucky enough to live quite high up in my flat. There's no-one above me to make any noise, I get early morning and late evening sun, and the only downer is that there is no lift and it's a bugger when you've got tons of shopping or heavy luggage.

But there are times when nature provides all the reward you want. Occasionally, there will be a fantastic sunset. I'll be sitting here, working away, and suddenly become aware that the room is slowly turning orange as the evening draws in. I must confess that I don't know much about meteorology and what it is that makes for a good sunset, but I know one when I see one.

And this evening, it was a corker: not of the spectacular, vivid pink clouds kind, but of the more subtle glowing orange, fading to pale crimson kind. In the distance are two tall cranes above a building site, which make for wonderful photographic subject. (More photos on Qype)

It's made my day. I hope you like it.

Friday, 15 February 2008

The Valentine Hangover

Well, it's the day after the night before. What did you do for Valentine's Day?

I can't help thinking that this is yet another example of marketing hype over substance: a brilliant device of the greetings card industry to fill in the gap between Christmas and Mother's Day, which has been exploited to the full by the cut flower industry, chocolate manufacturers and card shops.

Now, I'm don't mean to be a kill-joy but, as with Christmas, things seem to have got out of hand. Go into a branch of Clinton Cards as I did the other day, and you are confronted with vast quantities of "teddy tat", cheap cuddly items for spur-of-the-moment purchases by pubescent teenagers. The price of cut flowers always doubles (or trebles) - although I saw that Sainsbury's was doing a nice line in conscience-salving by offering 12 Fairly-Traded Red Roses. Every restaurant around is packed full, and you just know that the quality of food and service in most of them is going to suffer as a result.

Even the mobile phone companies have got in on the act. I was sent a 'chain' text message, which asked me to forward a 'Valentine's Day Rose' to 12 people, "if you care about them". The 'rose' itself was quite clever " @>-%- " - but it just felt like I was being manipulated again. Needless to say, I didn't forward it.

That all said, my partner and I bought into the event to the extent of buying cards (although mine arrived in the evening, having been bought that day...), and we decided to eat out, but rather than a romantic little venue for two, we went after work to Masala Zone for a quick curry. This seemed to be full (very full) of everyone else escaping the Valentine's Day madness: some people there to do business, some families, tourists, work parties and just a few couples.

Masala Zone is clearly doing something right, as about a fifth of the customers were seemingly from South Asia. Our meals were fine, although my vegetarian kichdi was a little too heavy on the ghee (I've had it here before and it has been much nicer, so it was clearly something to do with being packed), but the service was fast and slick, and one thing I especially like is that everything is spotlessly clean - no greasy fingerprints on the plates and glasses.

After that, it was a case of going home and snuggling up with a glass (or two, or three) of wine, before going to bed early. That's surely what it's all about...

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

How about a virtual pub crawl?

I'm an avid contributor to the review website Qype, and among my contributions are, well, quite a lot of pubs. I've actually produced a guide to my favourite real-ale pubs. As the guide says, the key criteria are: decent real-ale; a friendly welcome; and pleasant surroundings.

The real-ale bit is very important: my other half and I are both members of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. Founded in 1971, it is regarded by many as the most successful single issue consumer campaign group in Britain. Prior to its formation, real ale - the traditional British pint, with centuries of history and pedigree behind it - was rapidly disappearing, being replaced by sterilised and uniform keg beers, and in danger of becoming extinct. So a group of real-ale enthusiasts got together and tried to do something about it - leading to the formation of CAMRA.

As well as campaigning for real-ale itself, CAMRA has also campaigned for greater choice in pubs, resulting in legislation to reduce the number of tied pubs and introduce the concept of guest ales. It also campaigns these days to try and keep pubs open, with events such as the Community Pubs Week; for full pints (ie without excessive heads of froth); and against high levels of duty on beer. It also, famously, organises the Great British Beer Festival every year in London, now held in Earl's Court. Local branches help to organise many smaller beer festivals around the country as well.

But I digress. One of the other Qypers suggested that we could put together a pub crawl from my reviews, although he noted that they were fairly scattered across the country. So this crawl has to be virtual, I'm afraid. (OK, I know a virtual pub crawl doesn't really work - they haven't yet developed a web-link that dispenses beer - but it's just a bit of fun!). An added advantage is that we can teleport - very up to the minute with the release of the film 'Jumper' - although that might have been much more fun if he'd 'jumped' between pubs, like we are going to do.

So, where to start? Well, Brighton is a favourite haunt. Getting off the train, you could go to the Evening Star for starters, with its fantastic selection of its own, sometimes quirky beers; and then up the hill to the Prestonville Arms, with its fierce Sunday night pub quiz, perhaps via the Shakespeare's Head for some hearty sausages and mash on the way. Then - you'd have to teleport this bit - you could go to the shabby-chic and friendly Barley Mow over in Kemp Town, bypassing the City Centre.

Then you'd have to teleport again - beats BR, this, doesn't it? - this time to the lovely Sussex town of Lewes, perhaps dipping by the little village of East Chiltington to drop into the formidable gatro-pub that is the Jolly Sportsman. (Actually, as it's a virtual crawl, we could eat here too - budget no object). In Lewes itself, there's the real-ale paradise of the Gardener's Arms, the greatly-loved Lewes Arms (now with its Harvey's beers famously restored, after a campaign that reached 'Private Eye'), and the Brewer's Arms - a nice old traditional pub on the High Street - ending up in the curiously named Snowdrop (named, incredibly, after a tragic avalanche).

Where next? Well, close to Lewes there's the Trevor Arms, just down the road from Glyndebourne. And then, it's back to teleporting to London to finish off. After nine pubs, I think we can only manage a few, but the choice is so overwhelming. So, let's go for the renowned Wenlock Arms, just south of Islington, and beloved of real-ale aficionados, and then down to Trafalgar Square for a tipple in the splendid art gallery that is the Harp. And to finish, a short amble across the Square takes us to a pub I really like, the Ship & Shovel near Charing Cross. Uniquely, this pub is in two halves, across a narrow lane.

Phew! After all that beer, teleporting may not be a good idea, so it's an easy ride home on the tube...

Thursday, 7 February 2008

So, what are you giving up for Lent...?

In case it passed you by - and I guess that for most people, it will have - we are now in Lent. Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday, and yesterday was Ash Wednesday, so now begins the season of 40 days and nights running up to Easter.

Traditionally, this is the period when Christians prepare for Easter by fasting, prayer and acts of penitence, the 40 days replicating the time spent by Christ in the wilderness. (Sundays are not included in the count, as each is regarded as a celebration of the Resurrection in its own right.) In former times, the concept of fasting often reflected the lack of food around anyway at the end of winter. I remember reading that, in mediaeval times, the diet in Somerset at this time of year consisted primarily of salted herrings and conger eel, so no wonder they were happy to fast!

But these days, Lent often seems to have become watered down to simply giving up something we like - chocolate being the classic. A Jewish friend of mine once remarked that, 'when we fast, we do it properly - not just giving up the odd chocolate or two for a few days a week'. He had a point (unless you resemble Dawn French's chocoholic character in the 'Vicar of Dibley'). Shrove Tuesday has become something of a ritual in its own right - we even call it 'Pancake Day' - rather than representing the last decent calorific intake for seven weeks.

In our household, we actually went out for a pint of beer and a curry on Tuesday at the Warwick Arms in Kensington. (You really don't want to eat pancakes if I've been involved in making them, although I'm not as bad as the pancake evening a former boss recounted to me about her student flat sharing days: tossing the pancakes rather energetically, one stuck to the ceiling, and then fell to the floor. It ended up black on both sides, leaving two perfectly pancake-shaped areas of cleanliness on the ceiling and floor respectively). Anyway, my vegetarian thali was lovely - fresh and tasty, and all nice and dry - not swimming in ghee, as some can be. My partner's tandoori chicken was also excellent - freshly cooked and tender. That beats pancakes any day, in my book.

The next issue for me was where to go to church on Ash Wednesday. When in London, I normally go to St Botolph's in Aldgate, a lovely 18th century church with an inclusive worship tradition. However, working in West London meant I would not be able to make their service, which left me looking for something closer to home. My closest church is St Cuthbert's, with its beautiful Victorian arts-and-crafts interior and high Anglo-Catholic ritual. But finding out about service times was difficult - no-one in the office, and no web-site, so instead I took myself off to the grandeur of St Mary Abbots in High Street Kensington for their 7pm Sung Eucharist.

And it was wonderful. I know this may not be the most appropriate reaction to what is supposed to be a penitential service, but there's something about solemn ritual and beautiful music that makes you stop and think about higher things. The choir did an excellent job: a selection of 16th-18th Century devotional music, including 'Lord, for thy tender mercy's sake' by John Hilton, the famous 'Miserere' by Gregorio Allegri, the 'Missa de Angelis' by William Byrd, finishing, appropriately enough, with 'Lord, let me know mine end' by Maurice Greene. The service included the traditional rite of 'Ashing' where ashes made by burning the palm crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are mixed with oil, and daubed on your forehead in the shape of a cross. (Though mine was more of a blob, and got some strange looks from passers-by on my way home).

Perhaps most interesting element was the sermon. (Yes, that's what I said: the sermon.) Focusing on Christ's need to escape into quiet contemplation, particularly during the 40 days and nights spent in the wilderness, the Assistant Priest urged us to use Lent to making time to think and pray deeply about the purpose and direction of our lives, and any specific issues - financial, about a relationship, spiritual, or a direction in work - that were affecting us.

Now, that's got to be more to the point than giving up a few chocolates?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

I'm going back to my roots...

One of the most rapidly growing hobbies in recent years has been genealogy. Inspired by the likes of the BBC programme, 'Who do you think you are?', and perhaps more so by putting UK census data on line a few years ago, this is now a burgeoning industry.

As well as finding out more about who you are (or at least who your ancestors were), it provides something of the thrill of the chase, and can easily get addictive. Of course, you have to be prepared for the odd surprise - illegitimacy and shot-gun marriages were common in the days before contraception, and the parish registers don't hold back: "Lucy, a base child, born of Jane Smith". Expect, too, lots of premature deaths and infant mortality. Parish registers can make harrowing reading in times of harsh winters, poor harvests and epidemics. Similarly, oral family history may have skated over periods spent in the work-house, suicides, and criminality.

But that's also half the fun: there's nothing more tedious than finding all your ancestors were worthy but dull peasants. If you are really lucky, and your ancestors were posh (and wealthy) enough, you may even find the odd will or tombstone. Equally, you'll find frustrating dead ends, as people moved around or changed their name, or simply because the records have been lost or mutilated. This is especially so for Ireland, where a lot of the records were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the main Archive in Dublin in the 1920s.

I have to confess at this point that I am a keen genealogist, having been inspired by my great Uncle's work, which was based initially on a few dog-eared pages from a family bible. Of course, this was all in the days before the web, so involved some hard slog around record offices, and trawling through endless census records on microfiche. But now, thanks to the web, things are much easier, at least in terms of starting off.

For a start, there are loads of web-sites. It's hard to pin it down to just a few, but a good place to begin is has a complete and searchable database of transcriptions of the UK censuses from 1841 to 1901, and the index of Births, Marriages and Deaths (BMD), as well as other data. The former is great for identifying addresses and siblings you weren't aware of, whereas the BMD index can help narrow a search, although to get hold of a BMD certificate itself, you will need to order it from the site of the Government Register Office.

Some of the data on is free but, for most information, a subscription is required. Bear in mind that the transcriptions have a number of typographical errors - mostly due to mis-reading 19th century handwriting - and that spellings of surnames have always been somewhat variable, especially before 1900, when literacy rates were lower.

A free alternative to, at least for the index of Births, Marriages and Deaths, is the website FreeBMD. This has a searchable index and gives all the information you need to order a certificate, although not all the indexes have yet been transcribed. The site can also be rather slow, depending on the level of demand.

The census and BMD records should get you back to the 1840s, if you are lucky. Thereafter, the main source of information is the parish registers (and those of the Catholic and nonconformist churches), which in theory provide a record from the mid-1500s onwards. Some of these have been transcribed and put on-line, and the best place to find out whether this is the case is the wonderful GENUKI site. This lists every parish by county and country in the UK and Ireland, with details of all sorts of information, including the location of the parish registers - mostly in the relevant County Archives - and anything that has been placed on-line. This seems to vary hugely between Counties - Somerset and Gwent are very well covered, whereas Glamorgan and Devon are poorly represented. Genuki also lists a large number of other web-based resources, and - a real bonus - it's all free.

Another possible site is, belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Their beliefs include posthumous baptism, so they have been researching data from the UK archives for a long time. Whatever you think of their beliefs, it provides an invaluable tool for tracing your family tree. The site is the main access point for the International Genealogical Index, or IGI, for short, which has been assembled by the work of individual members of their church, transcribing the entries from parish registers. Again, it is not perfectly transcribed, and coverage is very incomplete, so any details need to be double-checked from the original source, usually the relevant County Archive. But is great for finding information that can otherwise seem to be like looking for a small needle in a very large haystack.

The Parish Registers themselves are usually located at the various County Archives around the country. Much of my family came from Somerset, so the Somerset Record Office has been a regular calling spot. It is typical of many Record Offices; there is a distinctive procedure for using them which is best started by reading their web-sites thoroughly first, and then ringing up to book a space or micro-film in what is often a rather small search room. Only pencils are allowed, and there may be restrictions on taking bags etc in. You won't usually have access to the original - which is probably very fragile - but a photocopy or micro-film copy.

If it is your first visit, you will need to register for a Reader's Card, often referred to as a CARN (County Archive Research Network) card. This can be done on the spot. Take photo ID with your address - a driving licence is ideal. This is then valid for all UK Record Offices, for 4 years. The record offices have all sorts of fascinating local stuff besides the parish registers, and will usually have copies of the local census records as well.

Once you have your basic family tree, then you might want to flesh it out with details of work or military service. This can be done to some extent on-line, again through, but many records will require a visit to the amazing National Archive at Kew, in West London. Housed in an enormous modern building, set amongst attractive gardens and ponds, it's a very pleasant venue (and, for modern architecture, not half bad).

The contents are formidable, and include:

- Papers from the Central Courts of Law from the 12th century onwards
- Medieval records of central and local government
- An impressive collection of maps and plans
- Records of wills, naturalisation certificates and criminal records
- Service and operational records of the Armed Forces
- Foreign and Colonial Office correspondence and files
- Cabinet papers and Home Office records
- Statistics of the Board of Trade
- Other historic documents relating to a wide range of industry (mostly those which were nationalised at some point).

Using the facility is a little intimidating: you are strongly advised to look at their web-site first. (The motto here is to plan ahead, in all respects.) You have to have a National Archives Readers Ticket made up on your first visit, so you will need to bring with you various forms of ID. (This is to protect access to what is an incredibly valuable, and irreplaceable, collection of materials.)

Most people are looking for military records, and these are arranged in a separate room, and are generally easy to access. I was looking for some of these, but also the employment records of several Great and Great-Great Grandfathers who worked on the railways in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After a few hours' work, I had found them - and it was amazing - and a privilege - to handle such documents, and see their signatures. It was, I admit, an emotional moment.

So. What's stopping you? Who do you think you are?