Sunday, May 29, 2005

Top of the poppers...

Way back in my pre-teens, in the days before "now that's what I call Music" compilation albums, there used to be a series called "Top of the poppers", generally found in the cheap bins in Woolys. Today, we'd call them cover versions, but they were more like full blown impersonations, intended to sound as close as possible to the original record. They achieved this with varying degrees of success, & sometimes abject failure. The albums never mentioned the name of the artist, or indeed any artist.

Our local Odeon had one of these for interval music with Booker T's "Time is Tight", which whilst a passable imitation didn't have the flair or gut wrenching Leslie work of the original.

Anyway, I thought that these cheesy copies had gone the way of spangles and Ski yoghurt pots, but I was surprised to find ASDA selling triple themed CDs for £4.72 (or some equally odd amount). I bought one, not actually realising it was session musicians, as the artists were actually listed. However on playing it, I realised it was a clone fairly quickly and on examining the sleev, noticed it said "as made famous by" abouve the artist. Trouble is, you get compilation albums free with papers, so the actual worth of the real tracks must be pence. As P.T. Barnum said, "there's a sucker born every minute" and I fell for it. This way to the egress...

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Snakker Du Norsk? (Part 2)

So, what was it like working abroad? I cannot speak for today but back in 1981, Norway was a pleasant country with a small population (ISTR 4m Norwegians), well educated, with a high standard of living but somewhat socialist. There was practically no unemployment (the people who didn’t have jobs didn’t want one) but the State ruled supreme. There was one TV channel, one monopoly phone company (Televerket), a State Bank (DNC, Det Norske Creditt), a State Oil Company (StatOil) & a State Off License (The Vinmonopol). There were other Companies in most of these markets as well, apart from the Booze. It didn’t have a State airline but it was a partner in SAS, the Scandinavian Airlines System (with Denmark and Sweden).

Norway was traditionally a sea-faring nation and was the home of the Vikings. It was interesting to find that several Norwegian words had made it (corrupted) into the Geordie dialect, the north East coast being handy for the marauding longboats. Some good examples of this were:- children: Barn in Norsk, Bairn in Geordie, as well as Jumper: Genser in Norsk, Ganzie in Geordie and House: Hus in Norsk, Hoose in Geordie (All pronounced similarly regardless of spelling).

I quickly realised that the TV was pretty awful- the highlights of my week being screenings of “Mash” and “Soap”. Most Norwegians spoke English so films were sub-titled rather than dubbed. The flicks provided a welcome distraction, although they tended to ride the faders so that the music was thumping but the dialogue was restrained.

Although somewhat puritanical about the demon drink (having a strong Lutheran Christian tradition) they were much less hung up about sex, but not quite as broad minded as I found the Danes and Swedish to be in later years. I can remember being picked up a handful of times by real lookers during the year (but generally dumped again just as quickly!)

Stavanger was both a port and a boom town due to the north sea oil. Mobil had three platforms planned for the Statfjord field, Alpha being in production from 1979, Bravo being built and Charlie on the drawing boards. My role was for the onshore network, although I did have a fascinating opportunity to go offshore.

When I arrived in Norway, Statfjord Bravo actually sat in the mouth of Stavanger harbour on four concrete caissons undergoing construction. Meanwhile, the legs of the rig were being constructed in the fjord at the bottom of my road. The legs were hollow concrete tubes nearly 1000’ high and at the base of them were a number of large concrete tanks forming a pedestal. (The tanks were used for storing the oil between tanker dockings).

During the Spring, the rig was essentially complete structurally and it was time to take it out. The tanks at the base of the legs were partially flooded so that they sunk down to the desired level & the structure was towed out to another really deep fjord further north, complete with cranes. Meanwhile, the platform itself was floated clear of the caissons on two massive barges and towed off to be mated with the legs. Once successfully joined together, the whole assembly was towed out to sea and sunk down so that the pedestal rested on the sea bed. Some idea of the scale of this beast can be found here, courtesy of Statoil.

It was very strange seeing it gone, as well as the giant toilet roll tubes from the flat window. The twinkle of lights around both structures were surprisingly satisfying & they were certainly missed until "C" construction started a couple of years later.

A few months later, I was asked if I’d like to do a software upgrade to the phone system on Statfjord B and I jumped at the chance. I had to go on some basic safety training first but because I was only going for 24 hours I didn’t have to undertake the survival course (which involved being dumped in the fjord in a survival suit). Armed with my upgrade tapes, I flew up to Bergen and reported to the Helicopter desk. Here, I was suited up (in a bright orange garment not unlike a made-to-measure duvet with hoodie), weighed (complete with baggage for an overnight stay), briefed and then myself and fellow passengers waddled off to the Chopper like a procession of fluorescent Michelin men. The Helicopter was a russian Sikorski which seated about 16 people, apparently the Sikorskis had a slightly better (but still dodgy) safety record than the Bell rangers also used.

The helicopter took off like a regular plane, hovering slightly above the taxiway, then after being cleared for takeoff, it adopted a glide path that a prop plane would follow, climbing gently as it cleared the runway. Once over the sea, it then took two hours of tedium before reaching the oil fields. Helicopters that size are incredibly noisy, even with ear defenders, the drone rattles you to your bones.

Eventually, we started to see rigs and the familiar sight of “B” came into view. We landed on the “flotel”, the floating hotel tethered to the rig and joined by an iron staircase & a sort of jetty arrangement. The flotel was only intended for the commissioning phase, it would be removed once the platform went into full production. “A” still had a Flotel, despite already producing oil. The reason for this was that it had been designed with four bunks to a room but the Government decreed that workers should only have to sleep two to a room, so it didn’t have enough legal beds otherwise. The accommodation block on “B” was considerably larger to cope with this.

Externally, the platform had the look and feel of an oil refinery (which it is, having facilities for gas/oil separation) but in the accommodation it felt like a smart hotel, other than a larger than usual number of exit & safety signs. It had lifts serving all the floors, although they were slightly unusual in having facilities for easy exit through the roof and up the shaft in the event of an emergency. Statfjord was unusual in having women staff on board, which the seasoned pros tell me gives a calming influence to a rig, otherwise it can be a bit macho.

Norwegian oil workers had the best conditions in the North sea, their shift patterns (for 10 hour days) were 10 days on, 10 off, 10 on then 20 days off. (The Brits generally worked 10 on/10 off0.

I asked if 10 hour days were over long, but the consensus seemed to be that there wasn’t too much to do otherwise besides eating & watching movies and the work stretched to fill the time available.

The phone system was on the top floor next to the main radio room (just under the helideck) and other than a slight sense of movement when it was choppy, it could have been on dry land. Apparently the three legged “A” twisted somewhat in storms, so B & C went for the extra leg to minimise it. The upgrade went OK after some minor hitches and I eventually retired to bed on the Flotel.

In the morning, after a traditional Norsk breakfast (open sandwiches & fish) I returned to the main platform to ensure all was well. As I went, I watched a crew precariously unloading supplies from one of the supply vessels (like oversize tugboats, one of which circled the rig all day every day) and noticed that it was getting extremely choppy, the boat bouncing around like a bucking bronco at a fairground. Getting to deck level, the stairs were moving considerably with the yaw of the flotel and shortly afterwards the PA announced that they would be lifting the drawbridge.

All being well, I checked in with the despatcher, who advised that I could get on the next chopper (leaving shortly) or stay another day, (as the rest were grounded due to forthcoming bad weather) so I elected for the former. This time, I left from the helideck right at the top of the rig, which is a long way up, was rather breezy and with just a rope net round the edges. I would have liked to have had a proper look round but couldn’t go on the production floor without advanced training so it was not to be.

I do have a vivid recollection of standing by the rail looking out to sea at dusk, seeing the twinkling lights and gas burn-off flares of other rigs in all directions for miles around. The other thing that you don’t expect is the smell, despite “A” being half a mile away there was still a pungent smell of oil & gas.

Whilst man taming the sea through technology is hugely impressive, sometimes the sea wins. Every day when I went to and from work, I passed a fjord with what looked like four round orange pontoons in it. This was actually an unintended monument to a terrible calamity, being the upside-down legs of a flotel called the Alexander L Kielland. It actually had five legs arranged in a pentagon and was used in the Ekofisk field until one of the legs sheared off on March 27th 1980 in a storm and it capsized, killing 123 people in Norway’s worst offshore disaster. It was towed to the Fjord in order to provide shelter before deciding what to do next but even during my time in Stavanger, the relatives were still pressing the authorities to take action to recover any remaining bodies but it was mired in counter-accusation and indecision. The sea is as forgiving as electricity, a reluctant slave, a vengeful master.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Snakker du Norsk?

“Snakker du Norsk?” Means “do you speak Norwegian?”, in Norwegian, to which my answer is “Ja, jeg snakker litt norsk”, yes, I speak a little Norwegian. (Only in present tense and I’m a bit rusty, it was quarter of a century ago!)

My first trip abroad was working Contract for Mobil Exploration Norway. I was effectively head-hunted (or my job was), an advert appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph during mid November 1980 for an SL1 installation & project specialist, 12 month contract, £12k tax free, accommodation provided, 6 flights home. Seeing as how I was earning about £8k at the time, it was too tempting not to explore.

I had a first interview in the Bar of the Coventry De Vere Hotel and it was arranged for me to have my actual interview in Stavanger a few days later (fortunately, I had some holidays left so managed to fit it around other arrangements.)

I flew from Newcastle To Stavanger one evening which was a first for me, I’d never flown commercially before. I’d also never appreciated that a small bottle of wine could be so much more effective at altitude!

Arriving at Stavanger, I met Richard Llewellyn, the local contact, who took me to the best hotel in Stavanger, the Atlantic, for my overnight stay. From my room window, I had a nice view of the town lake. The room seemed a little gloomy, as the style was to have dark shaded lamps rather than a central fixture. The décor was strongly wood based, unsurprising for a country that excelled in forestry as well as fishing and oil. The other thing that stuck in my mind was that whilst it was a double bed, it had two single quilts.

The following day, I was picked up after breakfast (which was a very fishy one), driven round to the harbour and met the team. The main Project manager was a Brit called Derek Bassett, who had a sidekick called Paul Hocking who was working on a message store and forward system (using Telex, a 110 baud text transmission system using teleprinters that pre-dated the Fax and was mostly killed off by it). They were both Contractors for Mobil and the Head of the Department was called Od Haugen. Od was indeed a little odd, but he was always interesting to talk to and a bit of a visionary.

Anyway, they liked me, so it was agreed that I’d start early in the New Year. I then had to work my notice, move out and sort out all the loose ends. GEC were rather disappointed to lose me (The Head of Engineering, Nick Dowty, had me in his office and told me I was “an absolute fart” with a twinkle in his eye). My immediate line manager asked if I could complete one last project, the installation of the training system for British Telecom, as it had just then been renamed. That was a fun fortnight and worth a blog in its own right.

Starting in Norway after the Xmas & New Year festivities, I stayed in the Victoria Hotel for the first week or two, until I was sorted out for an Apartment. The Victoria was one side of the harbour and the offices were in a converted warehouse the other side of the harbour, in a building known as “Crossed Fish”. Getting to and from work was a pleasant stroll, provided it wasn’t raining. Whilst Norway gets very cold, Stavanger catches the gulf stream so it has a maritime climate the same as England. For snow, think rain.

Stavanger is the Texas of Norway, the main oil town. Whilst there was a state owned oil company (StatOil), they couldn’t do it all on their own so most of the other big names were in town as well. I was working for Mobil Exploration Norway Inc., abbreviated to MENI internally. I actually worked for a joint venture company called Anglo-Nor Engineering AS (AS being the equivalent of Ltd), whose only employee was Richard Llewellyn. They were based in the offices of the Norwegian partner and I don’t recall what they were called now (or the British arm either) but they basically picked up UK Television with a very large dish and retransmitted it via Cable to nearby communities with inevitably variable results. At the time there was only one Norwegian TV station (NRK) which was state-run and a little dull so there was certainly an opportunity.

In my first week, I rapidly grasped what the job was about. Mobil had managed to persuade the local PTT to allow them to buy a Northern Telecom SL-1 phone system in the face of strong opposition, the incumbent preferring to supply Ericsson and Siemens systems. Mobil wanted someone who knew the SL-1 and could ensure they were making best use of it. The installation was about to start the following week and plans were well advanced for it.

I was keen to get out of the hotel and so was Richard, as it was eroding his margin. Richard and I visited various possibilities for accommodation, some of which needed a car, some which were not quite finished and some which were not too nice. My favourite one was about three miles inland in a small hamlet called Vaulen, an easy bus ride away. It was the upstairs of a reasonably sized house, consisting of a large lounge, reasonable sized bedroom (with big bed), a kitchen and a bathroom/WC, all off a hallway. My front door was glazed at the top of the stairs and there was also a smaller bedroom there that the landlady’s son used. Apart from the occasional tendency to play Pink Floyd loudly when his mum was out (which didn’t bother me at all), the family were little bother and I could use their washing machine in the basement. The bedroom had a small balcony and it was refreshing to go out in the morning and take in the view, you felt you could lean out and touch the mountains, or scoop up the water of the fjord.

Richard also took me shopping- he bought me sets of sheets, pillows, a duvet, a record player/receiver, a clock radio & a few odds & sods missing from the inventory. He also arranged for hire of a TV and video, although this being Norway, there was a waiting list for the VCR so I bought myself one once the first month’s wages came through.

Work was interesting and enjoyable. My main business contact was Gro Walters, the switchboard supervisor who headed up a team of eight or nine operators. I also befriended the Telex supervisor, a tall Nordic fair haired bloke called Hans who became a good drinking buddy. The Scandinavians are mostly good looking, athletic outdoor folk which makes the women look stunning, but the men seem gay…

Derek Bassett was good to work for, he knew what he wanted and made it clear what the goals were. He also cooked an excellent Curry, so visiting him socially was never a chore.

Socially, Norway was very anti alcohol. There was one proper pub in town on the waterfront called Dickens, beer was 25NKR (Norwegian crowns) a half litre, so this worked out at nearly £3 a pint. The Pub was so popular that after 5pm, you had to queue to get in. There were three other Pubs elsewhere in Town, one which I liked was called the SkipperStuen, or the Captain’s Cabin. The Hotels had bars as well and there were a couple of Night Clubs, my favourite being one called Skagen which was in a converted warehouse. Prawn night was popular, they brought a special rowing boat onto the dancefloor full of cooked (but whole) prawns that you then peeled & made into open sandwiches. If you wanted to buy booze, you went to the State Off-Licence, known as the VinMonop, or Wine Monopoly shop. Here you could buy wines and spirits behind discreet curtained windows. This was also where you went if you needed Meths…

Monday, May 23, 2005

loose ends...

I've winged on about unsatisfactory resolutions recently.

After much mithering, I have a range of (mostly) successful outcomes. They all relate to former postings on the blog.

1) ASDA happily gave me £20 back tonight, apologised for messing me about and ripped up the display tickets about the offer that they couldn't fulfill.

2) The examining board never got back to me as promised, but did admit today that I had passed, they just couldn't formally release the results until they had all the examiner comments back.

3) The LS27 Group dissapeared up its own orifice once they realised it had gone beyond a joke and that they were moving into the realms of fraud & deception.

4) The Town Council adopted some better Standing Orders recently, although not before I had given the constitutional sub-committee grief for not being constitutional.

5) The Town's meeting will be held this week, with a sensible Agenda somewhat in line with my musings. It will be in the Alexandra Hall, I expect us to rattle.

6) The smelly waterless urinals have been upgraded and not as whiffy.

7) I have fluid retention in my right lug & some eardrum scarring. I'm being referred to an ear/nose/throat specialist to see if I can get my hearing back to normal.

8) On a sad note, Morley Puccinos seems to have closed after less than 9 months.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Happy to help (but not on a Sunday)

I bought a new pay as you go mobile at ASDA yesterday, it was bundled with £20 of airtime, except that it wasn't.

The back desk said it would be in the box, but it wasn't. The front desk said they are kept at the back. The Back said they were kept at the front. After a few internal phone calls to the management team by the front desk, they announced that once I registered, Virgin would sort it out.

After charging the phone overnight and registering this morning, Virgin assured me that all such deals like that are sorted out by the supplier. If they couldn't help, then I should return it for a refund and buy it off them instead online! Sound advice, other than the small issue of the Virgin Mobile Website being down for most of the day...

Returning to ASDA this morning, I conveyed the update to the "Happy to Help" desk who told me my best bet was to talk to Brian at the back who was an expert on all things Mobile. Brian was indeed very helpful but he only worked there on Sundays and there weren't any Managers in who could actually make decisions beyond a full refund. The Checkout Supervisor was available...

Another chance to complain today, this time at the Odeon, for a screening of Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy. The festoon curtain rose, the decorative lights dimmed and the sound came on, but oops, no picture, just a dark screen. An usher was able to radio up to the box & get the lamp on quickly enough after I went to find someone, fortunately Xenon discharge lamps reach full brightness instantly.

I enjoyed the film but it had been Hollywoodified somewhat, overplaying the love interest of Arthur & Trillian. I did wonder how much of a role Douglas Adams played in the screenplay before his untimely death. I spotted the original Marvin Robot from the TV series waiting in a queue, Karen thought she also recognised the actor who played the original Arthur. I thought the voices were not quite as good as the radio series but thematically they were pretty close...

Friday, May 20, 2005

Dobbers with Dabbers

It is Friday, and I’m having withdrawal symptoms because I normally call into our local newsagent on the way home (or sometimes on the way out)to pick up the Morley Observer. Instead, the new improved combined Morley Observer & Advertiser was launched on Wednesday. It is much thicker with plenty to read, although some content was features and padding that may well not be there in the future so time will tell. In the town (& at ASDA) it was being sold with a free “goodie bag” which contained a micro-can of Virgin Cola, an Obtiser pen, a balloon and a copy of a new magazine called “Full House!” which is a bella type magazine and not connected to bingo.

Speaking of Bingo, Karen and I found ourselves at a loose end one recent Saturday evening and after ruling out any of the shows & films on offer, decided to visit the Leeds Gala club for an evening of low impact pastime gambling. I have occasionally gone to Bingo over the years, the main driver being to see inside some of the preserved Theatres and Cinemas that keep the buildings watertight and well maintained, if somewhat overlit.

Leeds Gala is not an old building, it is a vast modern shed with all of the comforts that old buildings lack, namely air conditioning, easy access, plenty of parking, wide aisles and a layout to suit the purpose.

Bingo as a pastime (and a business) is a bit of an oddball, it is at the lower end of a gambling continuum that encompasses fruit machines, the National Lottery, betting shops, horse racing, casinos, internet gambling and illegal activities. It is regarded as a working class activity and particularly associated with grannies. Most people who have never been to a Gala or Mecca Club don’t appreciate that it is worlds apart from the seedy seaside arcade image. Here is a whirlwind tour of a typical evening at a club.

On arrival, you present your membership card, or get signed in as a guest of someone. Bingo is a regulated industry and you can’t just turn up on spec, you have to join a club first and allow 24 hours to elapse. (Nanny presumes that this cooling off period will deter the casual gambler off the slippery slope). Your card is needed should you have a big win during the evening, the club have to prove that you are Pukka. Kids aren’t allowed, not even to watch as it might corrupt young minds. (This is the same as pubs where it is a heinous crime for a child to witness alcohol being served, although watching it being consumed is OK).

Assuming you are a member, the next stage is to purchase your bingo tickets. They come in a rather complex arrangement of combinations, some included for a fixed price, others optional extras. A club typically has two sessions daily, an afternoon one and an evening one. Each Bingo session is preceded by an early one and followed by a late one, although they are smaller in scale than the main event. In the lobby you will also notice prizes on display in cabinets, posters for forthcoming events and various official notices about the rules and prize payouts. There will normally be a payphone or a taxi hotline, if you win a big prize, the club will treat you to the ride home (for security as well as PR).

From the lobby to the main hall, you pass through the arcade. This is a noisy place full of slot machines, many of which can pay out in the £10s and £100s. There are no roll a penny machines, pinballs or novelty electric chairs that you get in seaside amusements, although there are soft toy grab machines, generally integrated with regular fruit machines. Most machines have chairs (or bum rests) provided and there will be a lot of people feeding the slots. The emphasis is not on amusement here, it is on gambling.

Leaving the noise of the arcade, you enter the main auditorium. There are tables of four arranged in a large crescent with the stage at the point of command. The waves of seating are tiered in height so that everyone has a good view of the stage, side-on. Towards the rear, there are standing tables in clusters (referred to as mushrooms), a snack bar area and a regular bar which is partitioned off somewhat with glazed screens. There is a large display screen behind the stage, a smaller display on the back wall and numerous monitors around the walls. The hall is brightly lit, colourful and tasteful if you think custom carpets, vivid colours and neon are cool.

Two things strike you immediately. Firstly the smell of cigarettes, even sitting in the no-smoking section, you will stink of fags when you get home. The other striking thing is the drone of the PA system- there is always someone calling numbers. Between sessions (& in the interval) a kind of Bingo-lite is played, called Parti bingo. Every table has a bingo board ( inlaid and a nearby slot to activate it. Prizes may be cash or goods and the pace is furious. Each board is a four by four grid colour coded vertically, numbers are called by colour as well, from 1-80 (Red Blue, White and Yellow, Red is on the left & you get the top left square free). A game may be played for a line (across, down or diagonal), four corners, or a full house (every number on the board).

The prize on offer is influenced by the number of players as there are strict rules on the payout level, tempered by the urge to make a profit. All the while, the caller is calling the numbers (zoned to the playing areas) then cajoling others to join in over the speakers throughout the auditorium between games. If you win, you have to press the “CLAIM” button, the caller can tell the winners but cannot say who they are and if you don’t claim at the right time you are too late…

Now that it is 7:30, the main caller is introduced, who will invite the duty manager to say a few words. You are invited to check your tickets for misprinting and told what order they are going to be played in.

Each game of Bingo is essentially the same, although they are jazzed up somewhat by different prizes, whether it is just for a line and full house or whether it is for one, two or three lines (a treble chance). Most of the time, the biggest prize is for the full house, although there are bells and whistles such as bonuses for getting a full house within a certain number of calls. Special games are referred to as Flyers and there are also Link Games, played simultaneously or in parallel with other clubs.

When you look at a typical book of tickets, it has a cover and a number of individual games (2, 3, 4 or even six). Each game has six tickets (separated horizontally) and it is possible to buy less than six tickets on occasions. Each game has all 90 numbers visible, arranged in groups of ten columns. Each individual bingo ticket has three rows (making 18 rows in all) and the numbers are set out randomly but carefully so that the 90 numbers are arranged in a unique pattern on each ticket. There will be no two same tickets with the same pattern on sale (although I don’t know how many combinations there actually are so that might not strictly apply on National games).

For those readers with a numerical bent, there is a quirk in the layout that deserves mention. Someone has consciously decided that each column will be tens based, eg. 1-9, 10-19, 20-29 etc. rather than 1-10, 11-20, 21-30. This means that there are only nine numbers in the first column and eleven in the last column (80-90).

When it comes to playing the game, it is pretty straight-forward. The caller announces the number and the player marks it off. The preferred method is the dabber, a sort of chunky over-moist felt-tip that leaves a prominent coloured splodge without concealing the number the way a Biro would. Pro Bingo don’t do silly calls like “two fat ladies- eighty eight”, instead it is pronounced clearly to a defined pattern, e.g. six and one, sixty one. (On the link games, it is slower and more thorough, sixty one, six and one, sixty one. As each number is called (in fact, a second or two before), the number is also shown on the screens and the Parti-Bingo display on the tables. On the large screen, all of the numbers called so far are shown as well as the call count and prize pot.

Sooner or later, someone will claim, generally with a simple “Here” and a book wave, although when tension mounts for a big prize, occasionally you hear a “Yesssssss!”. Each call is immediately followed by a short babble of noise, as everyone turns to their neighbour and comments on how close or far away they were.

Checking is very easy, each ticket has a pattern number (as well as serial numbers) so the pattern number is called out by a floor checker and the computer confirms it.

Is Bingo fun? Yes, to an extent. The trouble is that it is a strange mixture of dullness punctured by occasional excitement when you get close. I find that my mind sometimes wanders during the dull bits as I am not concentrating hard enough to find the numbers.

What sort of people go? Well it is very much a working class hobby, or the “sub-prime market” as the finance industry euphemistically calls it. All sorts of people go, although there are more women than men and more old than young, more shell suits than power suits. The big Bingo barns have big prizes and draw on a bigger and more diverse crowd than the small scale private clubs found in Towns up and down the country where pensioners stretch out their evening.. You don’t see Bentleys & Jags in the Car park but you do see 4x4s and a few BMWs & Mercs, the latter two probably self-made self-employed. The punters aren’t scratters, but some of them are dobbers as per the Dave Spikey definition.

Is it a Social Club? Not really. The beer is reasonably priced and the bar surroundings relaxing but banter is discouraged when the sessions are on. The people are friendly and helpful to newbies but will not tolerate noisy people or false callers. The food is OK but burgers, chips & gravy dominate. Is it entertaining? Some callers are definite personalities and can make it fun between the games. It is very polished with jingles & links (Gala use “Night to remember” as their signature tune) but it is all about playing Bingo & getting the money handed over as fast as possible, both in and out.

Is it addictive? Hard to say. There is the lure of going home with hundreds of pounds (and the vague possibility of thousands) but regular Bingo players get to know the odds and that for every big winner there are lots of small losers. Most of the time, the numbers come up in standard deviation distribution across the tickets but every now and again, Lady Luck smiles on you. All gamblers are superstitious and will have lucky dabbers, favourite seats and so on. There are helpful posters in the toilets advising on how to contact Gambling helplines if you have a problem. At least it isn’t wrecking your body, even if it dulls the mind…

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Culture shock...

I had cause to visit ASDA’s Headquarters building in Leeds yesterday for a meeting. I was looking forward to this as Karen (“the Wife”) had been there for an interview a couple of years ago and said it was a very interesting experience.

ASDA started off as a bunch of Yorkshire farmers who decided to diversify beyond their original purpose of making and selling milk (ASDA is actually a concatenation of ASsociated DAiries). About seven years ago, they adopted a management philosophy called “Gung Ho!”. This is from the man who brought us “one minute manager” and the main message is inspiring employees through relating to animal traits, namely the rather unlikely sounding squirrels, beavers & geese. There must be something in it- the Sunday Times has polled ASDA as a Top 10 Employer of the Year five years running.

Visiting their signature headquarters is definitely an experience. They don’t provide any parking for visitors but they do have a handful of special bays right next to the main door called “Golden Cones”. These are awarded as a kind of employee of the week arrangement for Head Office Staff who have been nominated as particularly helpful by the Supermarket teams.

The entrance lobby leads into a large atrium which is hustle and bustle as there is often an event of some sort on. (They appeared to be handing out samples of shampoo and beauty products yesterday). The colour scheme is the same as the Supermarkets, green and white with signage in the house style. There are two large clocks with ASDA “Happy to help” smiley faces next to the escalators, one clock labelled Leeds, the other Bentonville, the Corporate home of the parent Company, Wal-Mart. (Bentonville is a small town in North West Arkansas, U.S.A., where the first Wal-Mart Variety Store was opened.) The Company values are adorned on the pillars and the uniforms of the security people are the same as the checkout operators and shelf-stackers in your local store.

All of the staff (or “colleagues”, in ASDA-speak) have a “happy to help” first name badge as well as their regular Head office ID (which has their first name in much bigger letters than the Surname). Visitors badges are emblazoned with “I’m here to make goods and services more affordable”, which must be food for thought for the stream of supplier reps that go there.

At the foot of the escalator is a saints and sinners board showing the statistics for the particularly good (& bad) vendors. The top ones are in red and labelled as “offender vendors”, the bottom ones in green “obsessed vendors”.

There was also a display cabinet nearby showing off the family silver, various awards that ASDA had won (& there were a lot of them). There was a chalice, a sword, a miniature trolley, a truck, silver cups, plates, goblets, plaques and glassware. One that particularly stuck in my mind was an etched glass mounted slab awarded for something to do with the most innovative use of dry vine products, whatever they are.

One other item that got our party of technologists talking after our meeting was a large tree graphic outside their Information Systems Department. At the tip of the tree was an eagle, at the roots an oven-ready turkey. Each of their suppliers had a graphic panel that represented ASDA’s perception of how well they were doing with their IT & Telecommunications Services. What a delightful way to focus the mind of an Account Manager! Apparently some of them bring their bosses to see it when they are particulary low (or high) on the tree. It was interesting (but not surprising) to note that some well-known fixed and mobile operators were low hanging fruit…

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Radio Days...

I’ve not had quite so much opportunity to blog recently, Morley FM has required my physical presence getting the Studio ready.

I’ve never got directly involved in Radio before, although have been a semi-pro DJ off and on, earning my first remuneration (£30) to run all of the school Discos at age 17. I can recall visiting Radio Newcastle in the mid-70s (as a “Young Scientist”) and being surprised to see a rack of tuners for re-broadcast of other (BBC) stations when they weren’t transmitting.

Newcastle Hospital Radio occasionally used to broadcast shows from the City Hall, their technicians turning up with a large rack of very vintage equipment that rivalled our own in-house Tannoy gear under the stage.

I also remember the inaugural broadcast of Mercia Sound, Coventry’s new commercial Radio station which started in 1979 (or maybe 1980). I set the clock radio specially for it, presumably at 6am or some such time. The breakfast presenter was Gordon Astley who was fairly wacky & I think he has been on telly occasionally. I think I listened for about 2 minutes then went back to sleep!

Gordon’s signature gag was “Body check, two of everything down the outside, one of everything up the middle…”

A few weeks later, on returning from an event feeling very mellow (i.e. half-cut), I put the radio on whilst getting ready for bed and heard half a dozen absolutely top tracks from their equally mellow night jock. Uncharacteristically, I decided to ring up the station & congratulate him & was surprised to be answered and praise accepted. On returning to my room, I found that the next record was dedicated to “Ian in Hillfields who was enjoying the show”. On subsequent listens, however, the interaction with the presenters was much curtailed, they had gotten hold of a box that played a jingle and told you the lines were closed right now…

My first work trip abroad was to Norway and my link to the UK was being able to pick up the Radio 1 Sunday chart show on medium wave as Stavanger was on the South West coast and you could (just about) pick it up.

The following year, I spent it in Saudi Arabia based in Dhahran, the Oil City of the Arabian-American Oil Company, Aramco. The radio was certainly our friend (if somewhat sanitised and censored to the level of paranoia) and I actually worked in the building that housed Aramco’s TV and Radio stations. However, security was tight and I never made it to the broadcast suite.

I used to tune into the World Service quite frequently when working or travelling abroad, although I tend to sanity-check their output with the Internet these days.

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed seeing around Radio Leeds and was impressed how much easier computers make the technical operation, provided you have the money! We were given lots of useful advice from various people, although I buttoned my lip somewhat whilst they banged on about how important it was to retain their charter. (I personally feel that the telly tax should be retired, even if we have to put up with adverts instead. It won’t be a hard transition, the BBC is already full of adverts… for itself!)

I may have possibly ruffled the feathers of the head of religion & ethics when I told him that thought for the day was my cue to put the car CD player on, but he started it, talking about why people change channels!

Now we have a studio of our own. It is small, cramped and full of 2nd hand equipment, some of which can best be described as tat. Still, the night time hour is calling, where did I put those soft rock, blues & soul records…?

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Keeping in touch with the MP

Well, I've written the letter to Colin Challen MP requesting a visit to the Parliament Clock and Big Ben. His staff were very on the ball replying (they actually rang home and confused my Mother in Law) but the chap who organises it locally is taking a well earned rest at the moment.

I decided to drop the letter in to Unity Hall, the Labour Party premises in Morley where the constituency office is. Apart from the dozens of "vote labour" signs in the windows, you wouldn't actually know the MP's office is in there. The front entrance letterbox is not accessible as the gates are cable-tied together, a front anonymous lower entrance door has the gate locked and the only other way in is a dark pink door towards the rear that leads into a kitchen. The back door was wide open but it sounded like there was some event going on in the hall involving children. After dithering, I decided to leave the letter in the large box on the back door but I was a little uncertain as it wasn't labelled and the lid was secured with a spoon...

Friday, May 13, 2005

The end of an era (Deja Vu)

Just to save me rehashing the first few sentences, see the post below called lies, damn lies & statistics, substitute Observer for Advertiser and 134 years for 75 years.

You can even get the story yourself at

As far as the rest of the paper goes, The letters are the same, apart from some judicious editing of the Tory Boy (no mention of Aladdin characters i.e. Wishee Washee) and new one from a Mr. Joseph Medley complaining about Leeds City Council taking down election signs on election day. Joe Medley was a Labour candidate for Town Council Central Ward last year, is probably standing for the Topcliffe by-election next month and probably wants to raise his profile. However, raising an issue where the Labour party was the one breaking the rules is probably not the right way to go about it...

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The joy of Aldi...

Today, I discovered that Aldi doesn't just sell beans out of cardboard boxes. I happened to read a copy of the Daily Mirror (distainfully, of course) last night and was surprised to see that they have weekly bargains in computing and all sorts of stuff. This morning, I caught my Boss browsing to the Aldi site as he was lamenting not being able to get over at 9am due to a meeting. I offered to go for him as I was curious.

The first problem, however, was their website- it said our nearest Aldi was in Tong Street, a couple of miles away on the other side of town. This surprised him as he always thought the more local store did well and was surprised it had closed.

Anyway, I made it across to Tong Street for 9am, but was stunned to find that the Aldi was in fact a Netto!

It seems that they closed the Tong Street one down but the plonkers in Head Office deleted the wrong one from the Website...

They have an interesting approach to Customer Service- you can ring them to find out where the nearest store is but they can't advise on stock levels and all of the stores are ex-directory so you are advised to visit the store to find out availability and deal with problems. This is the antithesis of Argos (where they can quite happily fail to deal with your problems by multiple contact methods including phone, web and inept screens in the store) but it probably saves shedloads of money for Aldi by being honest...

Obsessive collecting

I caught some of a radio programme on Radio 4 tonight about men with obsessive hobbies, particularly the New Yorker who had recreated a Subway Train Cab in his apartment bedroom.

This reminded me of a few people I have met with equally engaging hobbies.

Whilst I haven't visited, one man on the Strowger List collected old telephone exchange equipment to the point where his entire flat was full of it to the ceiling, with only narrow walkways to get to the cooker, toilet, bed etc.

A keen projectionist had a full size 35mm Cinema projector in his spare bedroom, and was busy converting his garage into a home Cinema. I was involved (in a paid capacity) to advise him on how to wire up a salvaged controller for the screen tabs (curtains)and masking.

Jim Laws in Suffolk is a man who collects old lighting equipment and controls, ostensibly as a business. Last time I visited, he had two huge barns full of the stuff. If it is a heritage item, he probably has it. Somewhere...

I have been accused of collecting a radio station, but it is actually for Morley FM & will be moving into the studio shortly, fingers crossed. Then I'll have room for the Hammond Organ... (Only joking dear!)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Lies, Damn lies and statistics...

Today marks the end of an era, the last Morley Advertiser to be published. The paper has had a nearly 75 year history (it was first published on December 6th 1930) and next Wednesday, it will become the Morley Observer & Advertiser.

Sadly, the Advertiser has been the poor cousin to the Observer in recent times and despite being the same price (26p) it has generally been thinner and less informative.

Today, however, it goes out with a bit of a bang, with a full 24 pages, a few colour photos, a local history article called “The Advertiser Years” and a fair bit of election coverage.

The election coverage, however, is both enlightening and disappointing. There are letters from four of the five candidates but some of the PPC opinions seem to have been lifted as boilerplate for the front page article. An example of this is that Colin Challen’s share of the vote was down “slightly”. Slightly? It is down from 57% to 48.4%, and if you actually factor in the increased voting strength it is actually 15% lower than it should have been.

The article is also slightly odd in that it says this: "The Labour vote came out on top in every ballot box in the constituency for the first time". This is crap journalism as the voting process does not work like this at all, they are counted by box, then they are sorted into candidates en-masse. This statement is only speculation by the fevered activists who do chart-ticking of every ballot paper they see tipped onto the counter and has no official substance.

In a thank you letter, Colin attributes the increased turnout to be mainly due to postal voting which is known to favour the Labour Party. He is still banging on about saving the planet but I’m with the sceptical environmentalist on that one. His majority did indeed go up, but that was an artifact of voters deserting both him and the Conservative candidate.

Nick Vineall (Con) writes, congratulating Colin Challen and thanking the 8,227 people who voted for him. He is pleased they remained in second place as the only credible challenge to Labour (his words) but those words also sound a bit hollow when his figures are extrapolated, his vote is down 25.5% on what he should have got based on the increased voting base. He plugs the local Conservative Association and also mentions that the Independents didn’t stay for the declaration & speeches. He also claims that the Conservative Party is on the ascendent in Leeds (it may be, but not in Morley) and describes an independent platform as “wishy-washy”, on the basis of not knowing what you are getting. Sorry Nick those of us who don’t vote for the big three do so knowing exactly what we are getting from mainstream Party Politics and we don’t like it- Jaded, partisan, confrontational politics, all wanting big government, spin, lies & raiding our pockets. He says we would be “appalled” to find out that independents regularly vote with Labour. Pull the other one, we want them voting for the right thing to do regardless of whose idea it is.

The letter finally shows his ignorance of his parochial audience by encouraging all Conservatives to pull together to return Conservative Town & City Councillors, in next year’s elections. There are indeed 33 City Councillors up for grabs next Summer, but Morley Town Councillors all serve until 2006.

Stewart Golton the Lib Dem doesn’t have a letter published and he didn’t attend the mock election at Bruntcliffe High school (Challen, Vineall and Finnigan did), however, he made a good analysis of the results post-election, other than the bit about the Lib Dems being the obvious alternative! Based on proportional share of the vote, he was effectively up 14%, rather than the 9.4% suggested by the BBC.

Robert Finnigan, the Independent, described the election as a “deeply humbling experience” and has pledged to continue holding others to account. He omitted to congratulate Colin Challen & thanked the 4,600 predominantly Morley voters for beating the BNP and keeping his deposit with 10% of the vote. He actually polled 4,608 votes, maybe he should have stuck around for the result on Friday morning!

Chris Beverley from the BNP made capital of keeping his deposit (so it looks like you need 5% of votes cast, he got 5.34%) and claims that the BNP is now indisputably the fourth political party in Britain.

There is a letter of support for Robert Finnigan from Paul (Tingley Troll) Cockcroft & family encouraging him “to continue to provide an alternative to the boring mainstream politics which exist in Leeds”. I’d have to disagree there, sidestream politics is also boring to most people!

As a service to both of my readers, I have represented the Morley polls as a Pie Chart, first as % of vote cast. Red is Labour, Blue is Conservative, Mustard Yellow is Lib Dem, Green is Independent (Morley Borough independent house colours) and Pink is other, being UKIP in 2001 and BNP in 2005. I can’t do stripes so pink is a suitable mix of red, white and blue.
Share of the vote
Note the decrease of the Labour share to less than half the pie, the Conservative chunk being a Pizza slice rather than a Pizza quarter, the minor change on Lib Dem, the Independent vote appearing on the pie and the other vote doubling.
Share of the total
Now contrast the figures when the pie includes everyone entitled to vote. This time, the changes look much less significant and the obvious winner is the Grey pie chunk, the “none of the above” candidate for the Apathy Party.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

An outsider looking in

An interesting perspective from Blogger Andrew Sullivan, an ex-pat watching the election from afar.

When shall we three meet again?

A number of Town Councillors joined our town Clerk for a Training day held recently at nearby Caphouse Colliery, a cross between a museum and a theme park.

The event wasn't in the workings, it was in the modern Caphouse Suite which is clean, modern and well equipped, the antithesis of every real pit I've ever visited.

The trip to the museum isn't far from Morley, and it passes through Horbury Bridge which proclaims itself as the birthplace of Onward Christian Soldiers, written (in haste) by the Rev. sabine Baring-Gould (who was the Curate), for the Whit Sunday procession up Quarry Hill to the church at St Peter's, Horbury.

The training event was an interesting and varied day, although something emerged that caught us unawares. It seems that every Parish must hold at least an annual Parish meeting (more if there isn't a Parish Council) and invite the whole of the Parish to attend. In the event of having a Town Council, it is known as a Town's Meeting.

It is a requirement of the Local Government Act 1972 s9(1), but it seems many Parishes don't actually do this. As the law says it has to be held no earlier than 6pm in the evening and before June 1st each year, it seems we will be holding a meeting on Thursday May 26th at 7pm, somewhere in the Town Hall. My guess is the Morleian Hall which could hold 100 or so comfortably, the Council Chamber struggles with more than fifty although the Alexandra Hall can cope with several hundred.

The problem is, who is likely to turn up? What will be put on the Agenda? What will we talk about? We know that the Town Council Chairman (the Town mayor) is expected to Chair the meeting and the quorum is only two members (three for the execution of documents). It can discuss any affairs of a Parochial nature but they may not necessarily be binding on the Council.

If there has to be a meeting, how can it be of use to the people of Morley?

I think it would be a good opportunity to present the annual report, discuss the contents and take contents of a general nature. Is the Town Council achieving its purpose? Is it good value for money? What services should it look to take on with quality Council Status?

In practice, however, I suspect that in 2005, it will be poorly prepared for and poorly attended, as let's face it, we didn't know we were having one a few weeks back so it doesn't align with our timetable. We only have to give seven days notice which is hardly going to make people beat a path to our door.

However, it will be a very useful opportunity for 2006.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Out for the count

My participation as a counting assistant for a Parliamentary Election was to be an interesting experience. It was better than simply being a candidate representative prowling the tables as there was real work to be done. Of course, it could be argued that it was worse than simply being a candidate representative as the work was comparatively tedious.

On arriving in the banqueting hall at Leeds Civic Hall, I joined the Elmet counting throng, probably about 60 counters in all. The hall was roughly divided in two (across the width) by two rows of observer chairs back to back. Each of the two halves had tables arranged in a large U shape, with additional tables within for administrative purposes. I found a seat reasonably near the door towards the end of a U, facing a temporary stage with a Leeds City Council backdrop, presumably for announcing the results. Behind me, an identical arrangement was in place for Pudsey, sans stage. This was a useful place to sit, as I could see the boxes arriving, then later on the candidate boxes being filled and “enjoy” the candidate speeches at the end of the evening.

I was surrounded by “ladies of a certain age” (i.e. anything from 40+ to 60+) who seemed to make up the majority of the counters, although there was certainly a representative cross-section of society present, keen to earn their £40 before tax. We were ticked off an attendance list and then the Senior Counting Assistant introduced himself to us. He was retired and an old hand at elections (he had officiated in a senior capacity in the past). He had a droll sense of humour and kept us amused with stories and anecdotes as the night progressed.

Chatting to my casual colleagues, the lady on my right lived Wetherby way so knew the background to Elmet Ward. She said that despite being a Labour man, their MP was actually rather good in the Constituency and the Conservative Candidate was “a bit of a shit” (her words, not mine). Hmm.

The ladies on my left had participated in a couple of postal vote counts and were actually somewhat cross about it because it seems that a lot of the other participants were effectively getting paid twice for it (by being in local government jobs) and were swinging the lead big-time with excessive toilet, coffee and smoke breaks. Hmm again, with shades of Marge Simpson in the tonal nuances.

It turned out that the first lady on my left had lived in Morley previously, so we passed some of the time comparing notes about how the place used to be and how it was now.

Our first box arrived at round about 10:30pm which was followed by rather a lot of others (someone said there were 57 polling stations in Elmet Ward). The arrival went a bit flat around 11:30 but then a trolley appeared piled high with them around midnight.

Most of the boxes were modern plastic ones the size of the sort of box you do desk moves with in an office. The key differentiator, however, was the lid which was fixed on with plastic tamper-proof seals and with a sealable slot. How tamper-proof the seals actually are is questionable as they basically appear to lock in place and then have to be damaged to pull them out, but someone determined with a duplicate set of seals could commit electoral fraud. It may be that the seals have numbers on them but I didn’t look that closely.

I bought a plastic shell case from an army surplus store recently (for the grand sum of £1) as a “useful box” and that had my idea of a real seal, twisted wire through a locking loop, sealed with a slug of metal (presumably lead) which encased the wires and also had a seal number impressed into the surface to identify the sealer.

The first stage procedure was as follows:

The SCA would take the associated paperwork from the Presiding officer and check that it matched the box number and three digit code marked on the side of the box. He would then break the seal, remove the lid, tip the ballot papers onto the tables and ask us to count them into bundles of fifty. We were expected to place them all face up and it also helped if we placed them all the same way (although we weren’t actually asked to do that at the time). Once counted, we put an elastic band round them, added a pink slip (pre-printed with “50 ballots”) and placed then towards the far edge of the table. We would swap papers for people who were a few short of fifty, count & note the balance, then the SCA would check the total to see if it reconciled with the Presiding officer count. If it didn’t the bundles were handed out again for rechecking. If a consistent miscount was obtained, then this became the actual figure and this was noted accordingly. All counted votes were then placed in empty boxes on the central table for later stages. The reason for the discrepancy is generally down to someone not actually placing their vote in the ballot box, whilst the polling officers are supposed to keep an eye on this in practice it is never entirely policed. (Indeed, at my own polling station, the ballot box was between the officer tables and the polling booths but a queue would obscure the box from the not-particularly-watchful eyes anyway).

Behind us, the people with vested interests circled. It had struck me earlier on that it would have been a lot easier if we had actually faced out rather than faced in, as we wouldn’t have had people looking over our shoulders & breathing down our necks. However, on reflection, it was a lot easier for the SCA to distribute the ballot papers from inside the U. I have seen counts done both ways and they each have their merits and pitfalls. It was interesting hearing the odd snippets of conversation that drifted in and out of our ears from the people behind, a lot of it informed, some of it clueless. During the first stage, it is a chance for the party people to take an educated guess at the likely outcome. They generally know the areas that the boxes come from and have an idea what to expect when they look at the distribution of the X marks.

We did hear that Sunderland South had declared, but otherwise heard very little about how the Election was going elsewhere.

Stage one was the one that took the longest time, as we had to dispose of that large heap of boxes before we could move onto stage two. Meanwhile, the man in the middle was keeping note of the figures and all of the other associated paperwork was being checked out (postal votes handed in at the polling station, spoilt or misprinted papers not actually put in the box etc.)

Stage two commenced after all of the ballot boxes have been emptied (at about 12:50pm and the opportunity to have a comfort break after more than three hours at the table). The bundles of fifty were now passed back to the counting assistants for sorting into votes for candidates. Meanwhile, empty boxes were grouped on the floor in readiness for putting sorted (but uncounted) ballot papers into by the SCAs.

Sorting the papers is cathartic but does require concentration. Look at the ballot paper; check it is legitimate then put it in the right heap. For a paper to be legitimate, it has to have the election mark on it (the pattern of holes punched by the polling clerk using a stapler-like device), bear one cross mark only on it clearly identifiable to be a vote for one particular candidate and not be identifiable to the voter (e.g. by them having written their name on it or something similar).

As the votes got sorted, the SCA would wander along reducing the heaps by collecting for a particular candidate. At this stage, the Surnames started to be used (Andrews, Burgon, Kirk, Millard), as they are the most prominent bit on the Ballot. For my sorting, the Burgon heap tended to be the largest (Labour), with a fair number of Millard (Conservative), rather less Kirk (Lib Dem) and hardly any Andrews (BNP). Of course, it was hard to tell from the heaps on the desk, but the slowly filling boxes on the floor painted the picture of the slowly accumulating sorted ballots.

A spoilt ballot paper would occasionally enliven the relative dullness. Some were fairly uninspiring; they would have no crosses on at all, or a cross next to more than one candidate (generally all four). One was simply crossed out all over; another advised us that the candidates were all murderers as they supported abortion. My favourite had “none of the candidates below” written in at the top (as there wasn’t room to write “none of the above” at the bottom!).

There were also papers that were not spoilt but not quite right. Sometimes the candidate was ticked, or there was a squiggle next to the name. One had two votes with one of them scribbled out. My favourite had a small cross next to a candidate (Lib Dem in that instance), then a big smiley face filling the rest of the X box. The view of the staff was generally pragmatic; if it was obvious who the vote was for it was accepted regardless of following the rules to the letter. If there was any uncertainty, it was added to a heap on the centre table that would be discussed with the candidates if necessary.

Eventually, we moved on to stage three. This was where all of the votes had been sorted and it was time to count them. We were given heaps of votes and asked to check as we counted that they were all for the same candidate. After grouping them into fifties, we were supposed to initial them, then they would be cross-checked by someone else and the SCA would collect up bundles of double-initialled packs, group them into packs of ten, label them as 500s and put them back into the candidate boxes.

In practice, this double initial regime didn’t happen as intended, as some people were not actually initialling the pink slips & the SCAs weren’t looking for them as they collected the bundles.

At about 2pm, there was activity near the stage and TV cameras were switched on. The Pudsey result was declared, a Labour Hold. There were a few brief speeches and then half of the hall drifted off. Meanwhile, we cracked on with the count. Eventually, the tables were clear of ballots and the officers compared notes. The chief counter showed a piece of paper to the Labour & Conservative candidate to presumably see if they were happy with the result, or if not happy, that a recount or check of dodgy ballot papers would be unlikely to swing it. Shortly afterwards, the result was passed on to the acting returning officer who announced the results, Labour Hold, with the figures sounding fairly similar to the ones I found on the BBC Election website (the 2001 figures, not the “test” 2005 ones I saw on Wednesday!) A look at the BBC analysis shows a slight swing to Labour, although it isn’t as clear-cut as that as there was an increased turnout and both Lib Dem and BNP polled more than Lib Dem and UKIP did last time.

Most of the counting assistants had gone before the last candidate spoke and I was out of the door pretty soon after that. Slightly ahead of me was a group of BNP supporters (I mentally used the collective noun a “bigot” of BNP supporters) in moderate sprits and as we wandered back through the corridors of power, one of them pointed into a committee room where staff were bagging up votes for secure storage and quipped “that’s where the BNP votes went”. In your dreams, matey, your supporters didn’t vote for you in significant numbers.

And, alas, the same was true of Mr. Robert Finnigan. After I had signed in for Elmet, I received a voice mail on my mobile. It was from Robert’s agent; she had received another couple of passes in the post to get into the Morley Count and I would be welcome if I wanted to attend. I rang her back and arranged that in the unlikely event of Elmet declaring first, I’d pop down to the Town hall to see the announcement, but it would be improper of me to leave now.

Between the first and second stages of the count, I had a quick look at a TV in the lobby to see how the election was going and also rang down to the Town Hall for an update on Morley. There, the prognosis was not good & the Independents were actually concerned that they might lose their deposit. When I got home, a look on ‘tinternet confirmed how badly they had done, with less than 11% of the vote, 6.4% of the voting strength. At 5% qualification, they would get their deposit back to fight another day but it was still a disappointment that when it came to the crunch, his supporters locally still felt the need to follow their party instincts for parliament.

So, what did the results mean? Well, the overall turnout had gone up, from 53.5% to 58.82%. 4053 more people voted for candidates this time (& there appear to be nearly 400 more voters on the register.)

Looking at Labour, Colin Challen’s vote fell, from 21,919 to 20,570, 1349 votes less and only 48.4% of the vote this time compared to 57% last time (an 8.6% decrease). This means that more people voted for others than Labour, indeed the three other candidates polled 21,925 between them, 1,355 more votes than Labour and 6 votes more than he got last time. Still a safe seat, but no longer a majority of voters and slightly less than 28.5% of the electorate (compared to 30.5% of the electorate in 2001).

For the Conservatives, Nick Vineall got 8,227 votes, 19.4% of the vote and 11.4% of the voting strength. This was 1,602 votes less than David Schofield polled in 2001 which was slightly over a quarter of the vote (25.6%) and was a decrease of 6.2%.

For the Liberal Democrats, Stewart Golton increased his vote from 5,446 (14.2%) to 6,819 (16%), 9.4% of the electorate. Whilst this was an increase, it was only a 1.8% swing.

Robert Finnigan the Independent gained 4,608 votes, a 10.8% increase on last time according to the BBC (as he previously polled no votes at all. Unlike the legendary Kevin Philips-Bong of the Slightly Silly Party, however, he hadn’t stood last time).

Chris Beverley got 2,271 votes, 5.3 percent of the vote and just over 3.1% of the voting strength. I don’t know if deposits are based on potential or actual voting share but imagine it is the latter and Chris got his £500 back. There wasn’t a BNP Candidate in 2001, however there was a UKIP candidate who polled 1,248 votes.

Looking on the Website, it announced that Colin Challen had retained his seat with a slightly increased majority which was accurate enough semantically (he did get 253 more votes), but is basically spin. Based on first past the post, he had 12,343 more votes than his nearest rival (Nick Vineall) compared to 12,090 votes more than David Schofield in 2001.

It also reported a 1.2% swing from Labour to Conservative but that is based on the BBC swingometer that can only really cope with picking two of the big three parties. However, he and Nick Vineall had both lost nearly three thousand votes between them to the three other candidates and with more than 4,000 votes because of the higher turnout and 1,250 votes the UKIP polled last time, the majority went to Robert Finnigan.

The election result was pretty much as I expected, Labour retain control but with a much reduced majority. There is another good article on Samizdata here by David Carr that I thought summed up the situation much more eloquently than I could.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Angels in the architecture...

Three snaps from Rochdale Town Hall, 1200 ASA, natural light, no tripod, hence the mediocre quality. You can get a bigger version by using the clicky thing.
The Stage of the Great Hall with Organ casement and rosary window above.

Stained glass
Some Kings (& a lot less Queens) celebrated in leaded glass.

One of the wooden angels high above the hall.

Fine civic buildings

We went to someone's 40th last night in Rochdale Town Hall. The event was appropriate in its setting, as it was to be a night of 19th Century amusements, namely reels, jigs and stripping the willow.

The Town hall is magnificent, was completed in 1871 and is in a gothic revival style. The ceremonial entrance is light, spacious and brightly lit, with a delightful vaulted ceiling. An imposing staircase leads up and then splits back on itself to deposit visitors into the imposing Great Hall.

And what a hall! probably 100' long and 60' wide, it is dominated by huge hammer beam roof trusses holding up a steeply pitched roof, supported by feral creatures and topped with larger than life size carved wooden angels. It is a riot of stained glass, with two rosary windows opposite each other in the gable ends and Kings and Queens of england featured in the lower arched window panels. Opposite the stage, a huge mural of the signing of the Magna Carta can be admired. The stage itself is backed by a pipe Organ and there are padded carved wood benches all around the three other walls. The benches are divided into bays with elaborate wood carving, which the clueless were using to hang coats on!

Despite the elegant setting, I personally found it a bit bleak. The hall is curiously lit, with pendant lanterns in a byzantine style, fitted with rather unflattering discharge lamps (with a range of tints) that make it look gloomy even though it isn't. There is a lot of indirect uplighting to pick out the ceiling detail (not all of it working) and the hall looked much more elegant once most of the pendants had been doused post-food, pre-dancing.

Despite the stunning setting, the building is looked after in a way that Civic authorities excel at, what a friend of mine calls the "Coffee Stain" presentation style.

The trip to the toilets (in the basement) is marred slightly by the items found en-route: Bits of portable bar, old seating plans, flip charts, wheelchairs & general tat obscuring the beautiful tiled floors. They are either very short of storage space or they just don't care to have all of their dirty washing on view.

In the toilets themselves, splendid wooden cublicles with leaded panels, but toilet rolls just standing on the cisterns because the holders don't have middles, some fittings unsympathetic, 134 years of unfilled screw holes on the woodwork, encouragement to always use the sanitiser to clean the toilet seat but then all of the units being empty...

Back up to the foyer, have they really just plonked a photocopier in plain view opposite the reception desk without any forethought, when it possibly could have gone in a corridor somewhere?

It was also interesting to see a framed UN universal declaration of human rights in the foyer, just a pity that the celebration of the Magna Carta upstairs is now so diluted by authorative police and government powers as to be beyond a joke in Blair's Britain...

I nipped out to go to a cash machine and on the way back noticed the official Election count results for Rochdale, a very close gain by the Lib Dems over the Labour party. That must have been an electric moment in the Great Hall two nights previously!

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Polling day - So how was it for you?

Thursday evening was spent counting bits of paper with pencil marks on them. I was getting paid to be a counter for the Elmet Ward and the count was being held in Leeds Civic Hall.

I actually wanted to be at the Morley count but there weren't enough passes available once the serious activists had been catered for (my support was essentially moral rather than physical, although I did offer to help three times).

Arriving in Central Leeds a little early, I took a walk down to the Town Hall (where most of the counts were happening) and noticed that the anti-BNP louts were out in force, placards and all. (The actual BNP people are generally very polite and well behaved at counts I have been to). Whilst I don't agree with the BNP, I fully believe that they are entitled to say what they want within the constraints of the law in a free society and the correct response should be to challenge their arguments, laugh at them or treat them with polite indifference, not beat them up.

Returning to the Civic Hall, I was surprised to see Chris Beverley (Morley BNP Candidate) outside, who recognised me and said hello. We chatted briefly and I noticed that he looked like someone may have thumped him as he had bruises on his temple. That is probably an occupational hazard of being a BNP candidate!

I'll post about the count experience on another occasion as I have a busy weekend. However, on leaving the Civic Hall (at about 2:30am), I was greeted by a surprising sight. There, milling about in a back street was what looked like a coach load of extremely drunk St. Trinians VI formers. I have seen the slutty schoolgirl look recently before, in Wakefield early on a Saturday evening. I can feel middle age creeping on, as my first instinct was to say "What DO they look like!"

Also, within a couple of hundred yards of a _lot_ of policemen, some lowlife scum decided to put through a car window, whether for a joyride home (it was an old car) or possibly just for the hell of it. I heard it happen and saw the lad dithering drunkenly whilst his mate (who had pulled) told him not to be so mental. At that point I was slightly more worried about my own car round the corner, but that was safe. I looked back to see if any of the police had noticed but it seemed not.
As it was now five hours after my usual bedtime, I decided that home was the best course of action.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Skoda? Giveover!

A photo David took for no apparent reason a month or two back...

Skoda badge

They are good cars (the Octavia is basically a tweaked Audi A3) but their logo still reminds me of chickens & red Indians...

Post activist politics...

A very interesting article on the above subject by Brian Micklethwait on Samizdata here.

It goes some way to explaining why the party activists that I know don't really feel engaged.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

As I'm still up...

...I thought I'd summarise the election based on my doormat.

Conservative- two leaflets, two posters seen, replied to my questions but a answers a bit slippery.

Independent- two leaflets, loads of posters seen, replied very quickly to my questions, pity he is a lefty (or Liberal, as the quiz described him).

Labour- three leaflets, lots of posters seen, replied asking for my address then sent me a letter answering my questions, not terribly satisfactorily.

Lib Dem- one leaflet, no posters seen, didn't reply to my email.

BNP- one leaflet, a few posters seen, didn't reply to my email.

Door Canvassers: None. Phone Canvassers: None.

Election tables seen in town: Independent, rumours of Conservatives, others not seen.

Number of balloons collected by Son: Two (Green, Vote Finnigan).

Advice from Son
: They're all really boring, vote for Gordon, our next door neighbour. (I think he is confusing independent with retired)

As a small gesture of my enthusiasm for the electoral process (not shared by the rest of the occupants in Chez Grey) I have put up this poster in my front window. This is very low key compared to Mrs. Elliott's house in Rein Road which has large green placards. there again, she did publically recommend him to the electorate in his shiny brochure & everyone in Morley has heard of Judith. She doesn't actually have a blue rinse but you would expect her to.

Opening minds to open networks...

I mentioned that Malcolm Matson had written a document for the Oplan Foundation that he has put into the public domain.

I take pleasure in hosting it on my own webspace. It is a PDF converted into a Word document converted into an HTML document so the formatting is a little sloppy. However, it is perfectly readable and can be found here.

The BBC are ahead of the game with election results...

I offered to help out at the Morley Election count last week as it seemed unlikely that I'd get on Robert Finnigan's shortlist of scrutineers.

I got home this afternoon to find out that I have been appointed as a counting assistant, but for the Elmet Count. It takes place in Leeds Civic Hall tomorrow night and it could be a long night if there are recounts. However, I do get £40 for the pleasure of taking part, or to be more precise, £31.20 after Gordon gets his slice.

I was a bit curious to find out who was standing in Elmet (a Ward I had not even heard of before today) so I went onto the BBC Election 2005 Website to find out. I was a bit puzzled, however, to find that the 2001 results were still up. My puzzlement turned to incredulity, however, when I realised that the results were actually for the 2005 Candidates, a Labour Hold, 2.5% swing from Labour to Conservative.

What was going on? Did the BBC already have all of the results? was our election process a sham? Are we living in Zimbabwe? More importantly, was I going to get swindled out of my £40 (before tax)?

When I checked again slightly later, the page had reverted to the more predictable no votes yet scenario which if it is pre-10pm on the 5th, can be found here.

Fortunately, I had the forethought to do a save webpage, complete, which I have put up on my own website for your enjoyment.

Where in the world...

Someone showed me an interesting little gadget last week, a gizmo the size of a mobile phone that could tell you pretty much exactly where you were (in three dimensions), what direction you were heading and at what speed. It used global positioning satellites (GPS) to triangulate location and was accurate to 15m or so (depending upon where you were and how much sky it could see). We were using it to check an Ordnance Survey map reference of our transmitter site for Morley FM but we both struggled to make sense of the readings.

Knowing that we have a lot of outward bounders at work, I asked further on the topic and was loaned another unit yesterday. I checked how much it was worth (in case I dropped it!) and was pleasantly surprised to find out it could be replaced for £50 or so. Indeed, a quick look on ‘teBay proved this was the case, for the older monochrome models.

I’m not certain I could personally justify buying one, however, as I’m not known for trekking much further than the Pub…

After tracking down a manual on ‘tinternet I worked out why we had been confused. The standard UK Ordnance Survey grid reference consists of two letters then two groups of three numbers, giving 100m accuracy on a 1:50,000 or a 1:25,000 scale map (generally divided into 1km squares). The handheld device actually resolves down to two letters and two groups of five numbers, i.e. 1m squares (although the best the device can really pinpoint you to is within 3.5m provided it can see a Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) satellite). Just to confuse matters, however, the second 5 number reading (the “Northing”) was prefixed with BNG which we assumed meant bearing but actually appears to be an abbreviation for “British National Grid”.

Moving onto the election, today is the last day of canvassing & the candidates have shifted into overdrive. Even Colin Challen (sitting MP) has been spotted out (by himself) putting up signs and posters. He must be nervous if he can’t even wait for the party colleagues to lend a hand. Has he done a risk assessment, I wonder?

Presumably the risk of falling off a ladder or of being fined by Leeds City Council for inappropriate positioning of election material is small beer compared to the risk of not qualifying for a nice fat MP pension by serving Parliament for ten years. It is a contributory scheme (9%) but it is a final salary one and based on 40ths, so 10 years service qualifies for £14,371 at present rates.

The BNP have been out last night, putting up posters saying “People like you… voting BNP”. Really? Apart from all of the prejudice and bigotry stuff they are also somewhat authoritarian and believe in bigger Government, the same as all of the other parties. Chris Beverley managed to get his election message into today’s Morley Advertiser and there is certainly some sensible stuff there- withdrawal from the EU, police actually tackling crime, use of corporal & capital punishment where guilt is proven beyond dispute, foreign relations based on the national interest etc. I have doubts for his claims of the BNP being “green” & don’t personally have a problem with their main bugbear, immigration. I don’t mind who comes here as long as they pay their own way & don’t break the law. If they decide to stay, then provided that they don’t dump on anyone else that is fine with me. (I don’t regard getting a job as dumping on anyone else, although being positively discriminated into work certainly is). If people want to live in Britain all well and good, but realistically we can’t just open our borders with our present welfare system. Conversely, I’d like to be able to move to somewhere where being PC isn’t a pre-requisite to getting on, but there aren’t too many places like that left.

Colin Challen claimed in a recent newspaper article that he was running a “carbon neutral” campaign. Is he serious? Is he cycling everywhere? Has he coloured in his own posters on recycled cardboard using crayon? The paper through my letterbox has all been four colour print on decent quality paper. Does he buy his electricity from renewable sources? Is he planting a forest in his own back garden? By simply existing, humans change Oxygen to Carbon Dioxide, that well known toxic greenhouse gas. It is also well known that politicians are much worse offenders than everyone else because they talk so much hot air. Come on Colin, don’t insult our intelligence, if you are an eco-warrior, join the green party, don’t just jump on the conservation bandwagon.

I’ve had a flyer from the Lib Dem candidate, who also stood last time round. Call me cynical, but suddenly popping up when there is an election on doesn’t score any credibility in my book. The Lib-Dems are also the most socialist of the big three parties and have a reputation for saying what people want to hear, especially if it involves getting control of local Councils. I've seen diddly-squat as far as campaign signs go in Morley.

Nick Vineall, the Tory bloke, seems a decent chap. However, he will inevitably come second at best in Morley & Rothwell, standing for a party that has been out-toried by new Labour in many ways. The Tories are still not a credible party and may possibly go the way of the Whigs given time (& another couple of election defeats). I have seen a couple of Conservative posters out in Morley this afternoon (on poles, not in house windows) so they haven't given up.

That leaves our very own Independent, Robert Finnigan. I’ve said before that he has a Labour Party background & somewhat of a statist mentality, possibly even green socialist. However, I don’t want to count that against him too much, because he has taken the step of recognising that our current political party model is morally corrupt and driven by power rather than getting things done.

A number of years ago, a pipedream party popped up called the First democrat Party. It wanted a Parliament of collaborative free-thinkers with simply a loose party alliance for the purposes of Government. It would not have had a Whip- all votes would be free ones, reached after careful consideration of the facts and practicalities of any issue. It would not even have any policies, because policies are often formulated in ignorance of the facts and the consequences. It regarded the primary role of Government to be an enabler only, with provisioning of services being the action of last resort should the free market be unable or unwilling to provide for whatever reason. It fully intended to collaborate with the other Parliamentary parties, rather than compromise, the current system.

Of course, because they involved humans, the First Democrats were not perfect. They were a slightly shadowy organisation with only one public persona, their leader, a Mr. D. J. Morgan. They postponed their inaugural Conference every six months, presumably due to lack of bookings. They also felt that a second chamber was an anachronism in Parliament and was no longer required, missing the point completely that laws are meant to be difficult to change and need to be challenged by others, otherwise society ends up as a sort of legal sandbox where well meaning but misguided schemes are imposed upon areas and regions to see what happens. Eventually their website died & now the only residual evidence of their existence is a set of filed dormant accounts with the Electoral Commission.

Would I have voted for a First Democrat? You betcha. Who is the nearest fit to that approach? Mr. Robert Finnigan. Robert, I wish you well. I will be pleased if you come second, absolutely delighted if you actually win the seat and end up as our MP. It isn’t likely, but it is certainly possible.

A Party member told me the other day that we are not voting for an MP in an election, we are voting for who runs the Government when all the votes are in. If this is the case, where is the box on the ballot paper that says “none of the above”? As long as we have a first past the post system, we will be voting for people, not parties. I don’t want a PR system because that is parties, not people. I believe that Robert Finnigan can be as effective as any other backbench MP in Parliament, more so when it comes to local issues as he will not have to toe the party line. OK, so he may never be a Minister, but the same may be the case for Colin Challen and Robert can certainly hold them to account.

Whoever wins, I will be sending them my application letter to book a “Big Ben” trip for the Summer.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Election fever (a distinct lack of)

We had a trip out to Southport on Sunday, to take in the sea air but mostly to ride Roller coasters.

Pleasureland Southport is ran by the Blackpool Pleasure Beach Company, although it is definitely small beer compared to their main park (which you can actually see from Southport if it isn’t too misty).

Their signature ride is the TraumaTizer, a suspended coaster where you sit on seats which hang from the track above with your legs dangling. I managed to ride it twice, once by myself and a second time with Karen and David (although we were split up to ride together, me near the front, David & Karen towards the back).

The coaster train has 16 seats with eight rows of two & can run two trains when it is busy but was only running one on Sunday. The seats have over the shoulder restraints (dog collars) and you certainly need them as there are several inversions. The ride is reasonably short, fairly intense & surprisingly smooth, provided you keep your head back against the cushion to avoid head banging. The Arabic theming stops at the station, it is hard to decide on a theme for 100+ tons of steel so “Pepsi Max Big One” colours are used, red track and blue supports.

Pleasureland is a nice little park but not really worth a repeat visit more than once every few years, unless you live in the area. It is also rather expensive- £18 for an all-day wristband (although we did get 10% discount for having BPB passes). We also rode their Woodie “The Cyclone”, it is respectable but not particularly remarkable. What is rather remarkable, however, is a massive Caterpillar ride some sixty feet in diameter, complete with green crinkled canvas that flips over shortly after it starts. This is a very old ride and possibly came from Coney island.

Something else not worth a repeat ride is their wild mouse ride, which was originally from Morecambe Frontierland and is themed like a mine train. This is rough as a badger’s nether regions & the bottom of the lift hill when the chain catches is enough to cause bruises to the back and hips. It isn’t as intense as Blackpool’s wild mouse but it is a lot more unpleasant.

One thing that did surprise us was David’s bravado- or rather lack of it. There is a short walk-through called the “haunted inn” that David sent me through to check it out first. I found it benign but disorienting as there isn’t a straight horizontal or vertical in the place. I had warned David that there were some skeletons inside & he went in but as he got near the entrance he suddenly burst into tears and turned tail. We eventually encouraged him through but he didn’t like it at all. However, he took the TraumaTizer completely in his stride later on. As the ‘merkins would say, “go figure”.

Back to the election, on the way into (& out of) Southport, a large number of houses had some particularly large signs for candidates, particularly a Mr. Pugh from the Lib-Dems. Contrast this with Morley, when up until late last week, the only signs I had seen in people’s windows were at Unity Hall, home of the Labour Party and Colin Challen’s constituency office. Large green Finnigan (Independent) signs appeared on the major grass verges in the area late last week, and by Monday, Labour signs had been pinned up (very high) on Telegraph Poles in the Ardsley area. I’ve now seen five houses with window signs (all Labour) on my typical travels around the town so the campaign is starting to move up a gear, but there mostly seems to be indifference. A trip up Churwell Hill this afternoon shows some enthusiasm in that area, there are a few Finnigan signs in gardens there. Labour have also been a bit naughty- they have fixed signs to lamp posts in the area, as well as the hill down to Morley Bottoms. It is forbidden by the Council but I guess they are willing to take the chance, albeit a foolish one, they know the rules and seem willing to risk being fined.

Of course, it is a conceit for anyone to think that putting up a sign in their window will sway anyone else into voting for someone in particular, although I suppose it is one way of keeping the canvassers at bay (not that any have knocked at my front door).

Our polling station portacabin has arrived in Glen Road so provided that none of the five actually keels over in the next two days, we will be able to exercise our democratic right in the usual manner.

It will soon be election day, the polls will close, all the votes will have been counted & there will inevitably be one or two small surprises here and there but probably not a big surprise. Then we can all go back to another five year sentence of hard labour…

Monday, May 02, 2005

Meet the weasel...

Work Weasel

This little fella lives at work and appears whenever anyone says anything stupid, particularly in meetings or on the phone. As the IT Helpdesk have to deal with induhviduals it is quite easy to say something weaselly.

The pedestal of our weasel is a small box, big enough to contain post-it notes which form an archive of former recepients.

Truth be said, most of them are for saying silly things as per Mrs. Malaprop rather than weaselly ones (in the Scott Adams sense),

The current one is for a helpdesk person struggling to communicate with an Engineer, saying...

"Why don't you spell it frenetically".

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Dancing in the aisles...

We had a family trip to see Complete Madness at the Leeds City Varieties last night.

I've been visiting the City Varieties for a decade or so, the first time being to see one of their legendary "The Good old days" shows, albeit a long time after they stopped showing it on TV. It was a particularly strange experience, as here was that famous set I had seen on the telly so many times during my childhood. Leonard Sachs had long gone, but Johnny Dennis had taken on the gavel with gusto. I had seen Johnny Dennis previously at "The Players Theatre", that strange music-hall club under the arches of Charing Cross Station. It was a theatre technology industry event for Plasa and he was on fine form.

Looking more closely at the City Varieties back then, I noticed that the Theatre was a lot shabbier than it looked on the TV and in 2005, it is even more so. It has this rather 70s flock wallpaper on the walls and a couple of Tykes behind me described the place as looking like a "giant Indian restaurant". The plasterwork is looking very drab & any work carried out by leeds City Council has been superficial or obligatory. There are hopes to restore it, but the Grand is gobbling up a lot of money at the moment.

Apparently, before it came into the hands of the Council, the owners only decorated the right hand side of stage boxes as the others were full of cameras and never seen on the idiot's lantern!

Complete Madness brought out all of the Two Tone Tykes- there must still be a secret back--street shop churning out pork pie hats!

A great show that had us literally dancing in the aisles, young and old alike. If you get a chance to catch their tour, it is well worth it.