Friday, 28 September 2012

On Not Jumping to Conclusions - and Why It Matters To Us All

I have been fascinated by the very mixed reactions to the current media narrative of one single couple during the last week. I refer of course to Megan Stammers and Jeremy Forrest. This mixture has included everything from "lock him up and throw away the keys!" to "good luck to them!". As to the bare bones of the narrative, the BBC has usefully outlined the key events in the timeline.

As well as noting the very mixed public reaction, I have been trying to form an opinion of my own. I may as well say that I don't believe that we always have "a right to an opinion", though this phrase is often used (usually with a hurt tone of voice) in many an argument. It seems to me that we should be slow - treacle-slow - in forming an opinion, especially with such emotive matters. Surely, if we want to have a "right to an opinion" we ought to make some sort of serious effort to dig beneath the surface of the media blarings and try to sift out the facts.

The facts in the public domain this matter are scarce. Megan Stammers is below the age of consent in the UK. Jeremy Forrest was a married man of 30 and a teacher at Miss Stammers' school, the Bishop Bell School in Eastbourne. People in positions of trust, such as teachers, health workers, youth leaders, must not attempt, or form, a sexual relationship with those in their care in a number of situations, even if the person in their care is over the general age of consent, or even if so, the persons in their care are vulnerable. The school was graded "outstanding" in the area, inter alia, of "safeguarding" in an Ofsted report of 2010. The pair left the country on a Dover to Calais ferry at 21.20 on Thursday 20th September. They have now, thankfully, both been found safe and well in Bordeaux, and Mr Forrest has been arrested on suspicion of child abduction.

These are the "hard" facts. There is other relevant evidence, not so easily verifiable to the public, such as the reports of hand-holding on planes, exchanges of text messages and so on. I do not intend to discuss such things, because they are really not my business and I have no way of checking whether they are true, not true at all, or recollections more appropriately examined in any future legal proceedings. I suggest that we should step way back and leave things alone for the time being. Mr Forrest has rights which we should all hold precious. Rights which may help us all one day.

Let's leave Miss Stammers and Mr Forrest out of it altogether. Things must have been immensely difficult over the last week for all immediately concerned.

Let's return to the fact of the mixed public reactions and opinions on this sort of story.

The problem is that human emotions and behaviour are scalable. The law is not. This is essentially why no law can ever be perfect for all cases, and why English Common Law is such a sound idea in principle. In any criminal case there is a binary outcome: guilty, or not guilty. You either did it, or you didn't. Never mind why. Never mind mitigating or aggravating circumstances. Never mind the impossibility of defining such material emotions in criminal cases such as "love", "fear", "hate", "fury", "loyalty", "pity", and so on. It's tough enough to define these words in any debate, let alone one where a person's liberty and reputation may depend on the outcome. That is why good and wise judges are so vital.

It's exactly the so-called "grey" boundary layers of any law that may well be causing such a mix of emotions I referred to. It may be that the statutes involved need to be amended. It may be that they don't.

I've heard a lot of toxic nonsense in the past week - from both "sides".

It seems to me that the truly civilised and humane reaction is to say, "I just don't know enough. This story should make us think. This story should make us realise that, because we are human, we need to think very intelligently about the law and its application - and to realise that gut reactions make lousy laws."

I declare now that, about this particular matter, I have no opinion and have no right to an opinion.

How about you?

Friday, 14 September 2012

Our meeting at Morrison's Supermarket, Bath

The area manager, Jason Lucas, had invited us to this meeting in response to a number of concerns we have recently expressed regarding the continued availability of products during and after the store makeover and he, and the Store Manager, Jeff Gardner, made us welcome in the cafe.

Firstly let me say that it says something for a retailer when they make a real effort to listen to their customers with face-to-face meetings like this.

I am not going to turn this post into a detailed meeting report, but if anyone has a specific question, leave a comment, and I will - if I can - answer it. Though bear in mind, I am just another customer, not an employee of Morrisons!

We started by saying that Morrisons "had it made" in Bath because of the generally poor supermarket offering in the city, and that in any case, we liked Morrisons, could get almost everything we needed there (before the makeover project) and felt that the store was exceptionally well-managed by Jeff and his team. Also we have found that many of Morrisons own-brand products were superior in quality to those of Waitrose.

Our recent problems in being able to buy our routine items at Morrisons, however, had by necessity driven us away. They are very well aware of this as a problem and the possibility that non-availability can cause people to change the supermarket they choose for their main weekly shopping, sometimes for good. For this reason, they do think carefully about the impact of withdrawing low-volume items, but obviously the impact of these decisions is not easy to forecast. In response to a question from me, they are thinking about perhaps making local suppliers part of their local offering in the store, but this has to be very carefully managed.

There have been serious problems at the store recently with the customer-operated checkouts. This, they explained, was not their fault. The supplier of the equipment had changed the specification of the hardware without even telling them. They are just as upset and frustrated about this as their customers. I made the point that one reason I never choose to use these checkouts was an ethical one, to do with the possible reduction and laying-off of checkout staff. The area manager assured me that this was not their policy at all. We shall see. Things can change, after all!

We talked about quite a few other things, such as pricing. But I'm not going into those here. I want to keep this short.

One last point: the appearance of the store is certainly bright, and the food looks very appetising. We understand that the works will be completed next Thursday. Time will tell if Morrisons get the right balance of their lines, both volume and minority, but they appear to be very keen to get it right and to listen. They stressed how important feedback was and  showed today that they valued it.

One last last point! Throughout the Morrisons makeover works, the store remained clean and tidy. In fact Jeff pointed out that they monitored hygiene very closely and took a pre-emptive and cautionary decision to individually wrap certain open-food items while the works were ongoing. This is is stark contrast to what is happening in Waitrose Bath, where the dust is very evident, collecting visibly on things like dark bottles. Yet Waitrose appear happy to continue to sell open foods for immediate consumption, such as salads for the lunchtime and tourist trade.

In conclusion, well done Morrisons for listening. It's all too rare these days.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Disability: An experiment in cool thought

Now, in these rather bleak post-Olympic and Paralympic days, when we realize that the emotions we have all felt are to be replaced by a grimmer set of realities, it's perhaps time to reflect on some less than worthy thoughts I have heard expressed, especially regarding the paralympians.

One thought in particular strikes me as especially unpleasant and difficult to deal with. I have heard people say, "I certainly can't run a hundred metres in eleven or so seconds. Yet these so-called disabled people can. So who are the disabled? Why should my taxes be spent on benefits for them? Where's the logic here?!"

Let's for a moment set aside the politics of this and see if we can approach these questions from another point of view. A cooler, more logical approach may help to reconcile these seeming contradictions and inequities, while justifying the continued state support of people with disabilities. For, make no mistake, continued state support requires that we convince the "able-bodied" taxpayer that it is justified and that it is fair.

Firstly let's agree that Paralympic competition is something which is seen every four years and is not part of everyday living (though of course for the athletes, the training and preparation are part of their everyday lives; but only part).

Next let us acknowledge a clear truth: we all have talents and we all have weaknesses. We are all on a spectrum of ability and disability (in the widest senses of the words). For example, I wonder how many of you reading this post need glasses to see it. Visual impairment is a remarkably widespread purely physical impairment - or disability if you like - so is a good example around which to build my argument. Perhaps, even if you need glasses, you may not think you are disabled. After all, glasses & contacts are so common, and can even be fashion statements and designer status symbols. But stop to think. If your sight was not corrected by these aids, what could you no longer do? I, for example, couldn't drive, read nor write. I couldn't do my present job, except in the most limited way. I couldn't enjoy my favourite pastimes, nor even pursue them anymore. Sounds like a disability, doesn't it? But I don't go around thinking I am "disabled" much less lamenting my impairment. That would be plain weird. I'm just very grateful that there's a solution.

So I feel we should remember this when we think about "benefits for the disabled". Though glasses are a shocking price, we who wear them, "benefit" from them. You can probably think of other common examples where impairments or weaknesses are helped and corrected, while not being normally considered "official list" disabilities. Many helped with state support, either wholly or partly.

A more ethical and logical approach to thinking about disability, it seems to me, is to remember the old principle which, if applied, is good for everyone: maximise talents and manage around weaknesses. This principle does away with the binary classification of abled/disabled and allows for more nuanced solutions. It also allows us to think about people as a valuable and fascinating mixture, and each one unique.

And every one of us deserving of both support and development.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Motorhome Show, Shepton Mallet

The internet is a wonderful thing when you are thinking of doing something you have never done before, such as buying a camper van. Buying a half-decent even small camper van requires the spending of a fair few thousands, so information is essential in reducing the chances of making a sorry mistake.

Many years ago we had a camper van, a conversion built on a Sherpa body, bought in haste, with all the consequences of buying in haste, including - in its later years - a pop-up roof which not only leaked buckets, but would pop-up whether you wanted it to or not if you exceeded about 40 mph. We still have fond memories of the fun we had, though.

Now we want to have more fun, but realise that £2,000 will not get you very much more than what is called a "project" requiring a total re-build.

Yes, the internet is a great starting point, but nothing beats actually being able to climb inside these things and have a good look. Last weekend was our chance. The Motorhome Show at the Royal Bath & West Showground at Shepton Mallet.

Arriving early, it took a while to get our bearings. The place was full of dealers selling motorhomes at breathtaking prices, and plenty of stalls selling every possible gadget for the motorhome or caravan owner. Our two particular "favourite" items were the miniature folding toilet brush and the astroturf and pot-plant, ready-made miniature garden. There were some possibly useful items, too, but not many for people who want to use a motorhome for travelling and seeing things rather than reproducing their suburban home on a campsite, complete with television, a garden and neighbours to compete with.

After about an hour, we actually did find a small motorhome which seemed to fit our essential specs: footprint about the size of an estate car, liveable layout, shower and toilet. And at a price we could afford. We didn't buy it on the spot. Never buy in haste, remember! But at least we discovered that such a thing existed, which was nice.

That job done, it was time to look around in wonder at those crazy American RVs parked up and inhabited by what we discovered was a community of people who showed every sign of political leanings which no doubt would engender in them some uncharitable views on "Gypsies" and "travellers". The pictures give perhaps some idea of both vehicles and inhabitants:

A very common sight was a collection of over-sized cuddly toys ranged behind the windscreens of these amazing vehicles, and, of course, the flags (Cornish flag in the picture above, for example).

At the end of the day (that's actually at the end of the day, not the cliche), we concluded that people who own motorhomes fall into two broad categories: the Way of Lifers and the more or less adventurous holidaymakers, who like a bit of spontaneity and flexibility and who like to leave home behind, not drag it all with them.

A final thought. Some things you Just Know. And one thing I just know is this: when it comes the time to empty the toilet cassette, it will be my job.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Comforts (!) of Bath

I have known Bath since the end of the sixties. Back in those days, it was anything but "honey-coloured". Almost all of its georgian buildings were blackened from the soot of ages and it took four or five hours to drive there from London, the M4 motorway only reaching as far as Reading.

The predominant accent heard in streets and shops was either genuine West Country or shabby-genteel. There was even a rough pub in Widcombe called (as it still is in its overpriced wine bar reincarnation) the Ring O' Bells. Smoke-filled and noisy, seats and tables tacky from years of spilled scrumpy, its proceedings were ably supervised by Rosie, a plump and red-elbowed matron whose good side it was wise to stay on. When not keeping order, Rosie dispensed scrumpy cider. Proper scrumpy, that is, not the artificial muck sold these days. Scrumpy had an odd effect. You could drink a fair amount of it and your head remained sober and clear. The trouble came when you stood up - or attempted to - and tried to walk. If you've ever had proper scrumpy, you'll know just what I mean.

And there was not only proper scrumpy, but proper shopping. Needed one nail or a pound of nails? Go to the ironmongery in George Street. Needed an obscure electrical fitting, or a lamp fixed? Why, good old Nations in York Street was always obliging.

And there was even proper swimming. The elegant and delightful open-air Cleveland Baths at the riverside in Cleveland Row, Bathwick, was just about as close to wild swimming you could get.

We moved to Bath at the end of the sixties and, wanting to save on fuel bills, would have a wonderful hot soak in the public baths at what is known as "Bog Island". It's called Bog Island because there were public lavatories and bath tubs there. (There are still two rather elegant entrances to the under pavement facilities, one for men, one for women, but they lead nowhere these days.) Lashings of lovely hot water and bath tubs so big and deep that you felt like a small child again.

Fancy a read? There used to be a rather inconvenient arrangement. The public lending library occupied the ground floor of the Victoria Art Gallery, while the reference section was in Queen's Square.

Wanted to rent a nice flat in a georgian terrace? We looked at two floors in the Circus, on offer for 30 bob a week. That's £1.50 decimal. Sounds good? Well don't forget the average weekly wage back then was somewhere between £10 and £15. If you earned a thousand a year, you were considered pretty well-off. Well, we didn't take that Circus flat. Thirty bob was a little too much for us!

The only thing in Bath which has improved since these memories of mine from the late sixties and early seventies is the main library, which at least is all in one place, currently hugger-mugger with the mess Waitrose are making of the Podium.