Sunday, 19 October 2014

What I Did In My Holidays: Part Five

My latest holiday post is split into two separate parts. This is the first one and the reason it has the number in English is because I visited the US of A and the last time I checked, they speak English over there (although they can't spell properly, bless them).

Our arrival into the land of the free was not auspicious. Having previously experienced the mind-numbingly long waits at US Immigration even in relatively calm times, ISIS has happened since then and we'd mentally prepared ourselves for a queue. To make things worse, we'd flown on 11 September so security was at Defcon 1. The queue actually moved reasonably quickly at first and we thought we might make it out of the airport before Christmas. Sadly, our hopes were dashed by a planeload of visitors from Dubai who'd managed to make it into the queue ahead of our flight. Each passenger seemed to be weighed down by a ream of paperwork and the queue ground to a halt as they were extensively questioned. Just at the 1.5 hour mark, a security guard casually ambled over and smilingly informed us that he was closing the booth we were waiting at because the immigration officer had completed his working day.

I started to go into meltdown at that point. Look, I was tired after a long flight, we'd been queuing for an hour and a fucking half, and I really wanted a fag. Those are the only reasons I would choose to pick a quarrel with an armed security guard in an airport in one of the most paranoid nations on the planet. Thankfully, my fellow queuees backed me up and faced with the prospect of a British person actually complaining rather than just muttering crossly, he steered us to the front of another queue.

By that time, we'd been waiting so long, our bags had been taken off the carousel and stacked to the side. As I waited, a sniffer dog darted between the suitcases, tail wagging. It zoomed towards my hand luggage. Oh god. It had obviously sniffed out the kilo of cocaine I was bringing in*.

'Ma'am (I love it when they call me ma'am), do you have any food in your bag?'
'I've got some salad left over from lunch, I meant to throw it in a bin.'
'Give me the salad, please.'

I'd bought one of those Plane Food picnic things at Heathrow and not eaten the salad, shoved the bag into my carry-on, intending to dispose of it once off the plane. Obviously, I'd forgotten and was now being accused of importing illegal salad or something. The guard confiscated my salad and made a mark on my landing card. It turned out this mark meant I was now suspected of bringing food in and had to go and stand in another queue for all my stuff to be x-rayed in case there was a lettuce in my case.

So anyway, we finally got out of the airport and met the lovely relatives who'd very kindly driven about three hours to come and pick us up as well as helping us organise the holiday. On the way back to their house, we realised that the countryside was looking awfully dry. It turns out that California is experiencing one of its worst droughts on record, and is actually in a state of emergency. As we got further outside of San Francisco, the landscape became more and more arid, yellow grass and brown earth baking in the heat. And boy, was it hot. Stepping outside of air-conditioned interiors was like opening the door of an oven, the relentless heat blasting you.

Because our time in California was fairly limited before we flew on to Hawaii (the subject of the next part), we hadn't planned much to do for the duration. So the next day we went to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which does exactly what it says on the tin and is full of massive trees. I was particularly interested because having read Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent - Travels in Small Town America, where he talks about visiting a forest with a tree you can drive through. So I was also very excited at the prospect of seeing a tree big enough to fit a car through.

Big Trees is unexpectedly gorgeous, awe-inspiring and tranquil. It's exactly the sort of place where you could go and shed the stresses of life. So how big are the big trees? Well, apparently Sierra Redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth and can grow up to 325 feet high. And they really are red. The park is also home to the stump of the Discovery Tree, which measured 24 feet in diameter at its base, was 363 feet tall, and was determined by ring count to be 1,244 years old. Why do I say 'was'? Because in 1853, settlers came across the tree and were astonished at its size. So what's the first thing you'd do when you came across such a wonder of nature? Why, chop it down, obviously. If that wasn't senseless enough, they planned to strip off the bark and exhibit it around the world, except the bark only made it to New York before being destroyed by fire. It took three weeks to chop the tree down. You can see from my picture how big the stump is.

There are a number of walks you can do through the forest of varying lengths. We did the North Grove hike which is about a mile and a half. The scenery is breathtaking - even the fallen trees are magnificent, their roots clawing the air almost like flames. There was a fallen tree which had been hollowed out so you could walk through it and it's so huge that I barely needed to bend my head.

So when a tree weighing an estimated 2,600 tons falls over, you'd know about it, right? In 1965, one of the larger trees in North Grove came down in heavy winds, and the impact was such that people living nearby thought there had been an earthquake. According to the handy leaflet we picked up along the hike, the redwoods are actually more or less indestructible (over-excited 19th century settlers notwithstanding) and not much short of erosion or fungus which weakens the roots can cause them to topple. Sadly, the tree Bill Bryson talks about in his book has also suffered from human intervention. It turns out that the reason a car can be driven through it is because in the 1880s, in a bid to win back tourists from Yosemite, a tunnel was cut through one of the giant redwoods so a car could be driven through the gap. As a result, the tree's growth has been severely stunted. Thankfully, the California Department of Parks & Recreation are considerably more keen on conservation these days.

On the way back from Big Trees, we stopped for a late lunch at the Snowshoe Brewing Company, a local brewery and restaurant. As you'd expect from an American eatery, the portions are generous and there's a lot of meat. I went for a crab and shrimp melt sandwich which was good, but absolutely smothered in what they describe as cheddar but is actually processed cheese. In all the restaurants we visited, there's a booklet on the table with the nutritional content of your meal but we found that it's best not to look at them. In one diner, my husband had some sort of breaded fried seafood dish and made the mistake of checking the calories - it was a whopping 1,600 for one meal. Yikes. They aren't awfully big on vegetarian dishes in California either. I expect it's different in the cities, but when you visit a diner in a small town, you're limited to salad or a garden burger, which is basically vegetables mashed together and served in a bun. At Snowshoes, you can also take home your own beer in a container called a growler, which made us snigger inappropriately, but the beer was wonderful. My favourite was a pale ale called Thompson.

We also visited a small town nearby called Murphys. It's a former gold rush town which was established in 1848 when two brothers, John and Daniel Murphy, built a trading post and gold mining operation. The brothers apparently took $2m in gold ore in one year, which made them millionaires before they were 25. Murphys was one of California’s richest gold towns and during one winter, gold worth $5m was found in one four acre area. Nearby Columbia has been preserved as a living gold rush town which is also worth a visit if you're in the neighbourhood. We'd been before so we didn't go this time.

Our hosts told us that Gordon Ramsay had done an episode of Hotel Hell there in the centrally-located Murphys Hotel. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of Murphys, having forgotten my camera that day, but it's gorgeous. The main street is packed full of quirky shops, galleries and cafes which Shoreditch would be proud of. There's also a cupcake shop, Lila and Sage, which is owned by the 2012 winner of a TV show called Cupcake Wars. Obviously, I couldn't sample all the cakes, but the red velvet one was vair nice. Wine tasting is also big in Murphys so because we're very interested in drinking wine wine production we visited the Ironstone Vineyard. It's actually a rather amazing place to look around, with a gigantic shop/cafe/winery, a gold rush museum which houses a 44lb gold nugget (yes, there's lots of security) and a really really lovely selection of period furniture dotted around the place.

It seems that the recession hasn't quite finished with some areas of California. Our hosts showed us around a housing development built near their house in which a number of houses are empty. There is also a town square which looks amazing, but on closer inspection proves to have just a fraction of occupied shops. The only people we see are two women having coffee but Ed Sheeran's music plays from speakers arranged around the square. It's all a bit eerie, as though the apocalypse has happened which in a way I suppose it has. Much like London, most of the work is in San Jose and San Francisco, but house and rental prices there are so prohibitive that younger people are forced to live some distance outside and commute. Public transport is negligible, so everyone drives and as a consequence, the freeway is jammed morning and evening. We heard that people even live in places like Stockton and commute, which is apparently a two-hour drive each way through horrendous traffic. Our hosts told us that their town is mostly a retirement community, but there's still poverty. Food banks (called food pantries there) are run by the local church and say they serve 50-60 families per month.

As on a previous visit to California, we found overwhelmingly that people were friendly and keen to chat. Our accents marked us out and we got a lot of 'Hey! Are you guys Briddish?' The fact we are from London sparked even more interest and we often found ourselves being asked about random stuff from Boris Johnson to the tube. It was all rather lovely and we thoroughly enjoyed it. If you visit California, be prepared to do a LOT of driving. The last time we went, we drove from San Jose to Las Vegas and back again via Los Angeles and the coastal route and it's many many miles of driving. We visited Monterey, which is lovely and has an aquarium, pier and the best clam chowder (at the Fish Hopper), is a must-visit.

So a few mornings later, we got back in the car and drove to Sacramento airport. Next stop, Hawaii...

You can see more photos here.

* This is clearly a joke. It was actually crystal meth.

See previous posts:

What I Did In My Holidays: Part Arba'a

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Disasters And News Reporting - How Graphic Should We Get?

A few years ago I did a journalism training course with a news agency. During the week-long course, we covered the ethics of what should be reported and how. One aspect of this was around pictures of disasters which involved human tragedy and the example they used was the 2004 Madrid train bombing which claimed the lives of 191 people, wounding 1800 others.

The trainers started by asking us what kind of pictures we'd be happy to see over the breakfast table and most of us looked at each other and shrugged, having not given it any particular thought until then. So they showed us a picture of some wreckage which we all agreed wasn't too bad and we could still eat our toast if we saw it.

Another picture came up on the screen, showing some wreckage and what looked like scattered luggage and personal belongings. Again, we agreed it was more or less OK.

The next picture had a shape crumpled next to the bent tracks which was hard to make out, but we were silent, looking at each other uncertainly.

The final picture showed dead bodies, their clothes blown off in the explosion, some dismembered, some face down, a jumble of hands, shoes and cloth. No-one spoke. I've never forgotten it.

Today, MH17, a Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has allegedly been shot down over Ukraine, presumably and tragically killing everyone on board. No-one knows what happened yet so I'm going to refrain from speculation. But the news agency I did my course with has tweeted pictures in which dead bodies are clearly visible. The BBC broadcast pictures from Russian TV where a woman's passport was open at the photo page. Another news outlet asked questions clearly designed to find out if there were any British passengers on board.

Has the world changed so much in the last few years that sensitivity, decency and consideration for both the victims and their families - many of who won't have even been officially told about the crash yet - have been sacrificed in favour of social media stats? An hour after the news agency pictures went up, people were still complaining directly to them on Twitter, yet they remain visible.

Arguably, stuff that can happen in real life is brutal, news agencies exist and have a duty to inform us about the terrible things that go on in the world. And some of them do a fantastic job of it. But tweeting pictures of scorched dead bodies scant hours after the crash demeans news reporting. Broadcasting the passport picture of someone whose family probably doesn't even know she's dead demeans news reporting. Questions designed to find out if any British people were on board as if they're more important than Chinese passengers demeans news reporting. It's a cynical disregard for anything but page views, which shouldn't be what news is about.

My condolences are with the passengers of MH17 and their families.

Update: The Guardian had an interesting article about the same subject and raises good questions about the right of picture editors to effectively censor news photography.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Exercising In Public And Being Harrassed

'OI OI BABES!'
'Come on!'
'Yeeeeahhhhhhhhh!'
'Go girls!'
lots of pointless horn-beeping
unintelligible shouting

The above is just a small sample of street harassment I've experienced since I started exercising outside last year when I joined a local running club and outdoor boot camp. It doesn't look that bad, does it? I mean, they haven't called me a bitch or a fat slag or offered an opinion on whether they'd fuck me. At least not yet anyway.

It's just this bizarre, pointless shouting and horn-beeping. A lot of people would consider it harmless. At last night's boot camp, I counted around 10 separate incidents of total strangers deciding to let us know they'd spotted us exercising - there may have been more but I was concentrating on not dropping a kettlebell on my foot. A lot of the time they weren't even shouting any actual words, it was just this kind of unintelligible roar - 'aaaarrrghhhh, look at me noticing you'.

Because let's face it, women exercising in public is pretty weird, isn't it? In fact, it's SO weird that you need to make a big point of noticing it, then let us know you've noticed it. So what should we do? Should we all restrict ourselves to exercising at home, alone in front of a celeb workout DVD so we don't have to tolerate your ridiculous howling out of your car window as you test your horn? Do we have to find a patch of grass that's well away from any potential passers-by in case you decide to detour from the footpath with your hoodie mate specifically to jeer at us? I mean, you are all grown men, yet you think nothing of bellowing like some deranged sex pest at a load of women you don't even know just because they're exercising outside.

Sarah Ditum has written previously here and here on street harassment while out running, especially at night. Conversely, I found I got less harassment while running at night and when the evenings got lighter I felt strangely exposed and nervous, even when I tried to pick routes away from traffic. Kassondra Granata wrote a letter to men who harass women as they're working out. Bridget Coulter wrote in Vagenda about the harassment women face while exercising outside. In all honesty, I had no idea it would happen this much. As Ditum writes, it's not complimentary or a tribute to our goddess-like attractiveness, it's judgmental, belittling and threatening.

Of course, I can ignore them and I do, but I hate the way it makes me feel - slightly vulnerable, irritated, self-conscious - and when someone does something which makes a person experience those negative feelings, it's not harmless. I don't want you to stare at me. I don't want you to beep at me. I don't want you to bellow out of your car window at me. I'm just exercising, for fuck's sake, let me get on with it.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Police Hunt For Man Who Abandoned Car At Bank Junction

Photo by @adelearmstron11
Look, if it wasn't for the fact that this caused no end of inconvenience to all the people in the near vicinity, not to mention the cost of the police and bomb squad operation and probably not a small amount of fear, I would almost kind of admire it.

Who hasn't been stuck in a traffic jam on the verge of some kind of Falling Down moment which makes you want to just get out and walk away? For the non-Londoners, Bank junction is unutterably awful to drive through. It's a point outside the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England where six major roads in the City meet with enthusiastically-enforced box junctions and traffic lights.There are entrances to Bank tube station on nearly all of these roads, plus it's a tourist destination.

So today, the owner of this green Toyota Avensis just stopped his car, got out and walked smartly to the nearest tube entrance, leaving panic and chaos in his wake. As it's one of the most terrorist-sensitive areas on the City, the first assumption was that it could be a bomb and everything came to a standstill while this possibility was investigated. Fortunately, it wasn't.

The question now remains as to why. Did he feel unfairly penalised by City police over some previous traffic infringement and abandon his car in protest? Did he just lose his shit over the ridiculous London traffic and decide to take the quickest way home? Did he just wake up and think, 'I know what to do today...!'

Answers on a postcard.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Permanently Temporary

Like a lot of people, I was once a temp. My career was measured in one week, two weeks and sometimes months, all dutifully recorded on my timesheet which had to be faxed to the agency every week so I could get paid. If you were a secretary or PA back in the day when companies still employed people (mostly women) to type, file and answer phones, then there's a good chance someone like me sat at your desk while you were sunning yourself in Torremolinos for two weeks. If you were a decent sort, you didn't leave three months worth of filing for me to do and if you weren't, you did.

So how did I end up being temporary? Having left school at 16 with no ambitions, a clutch of GCSEs and the ability to type, I became a secretary until student life beckoned at the ripe age of 21. Temping was the perfect way to earn money during my holidays - and as it ended up - during term time too. It was also a handy way to vet future employers. If the boss was an arrogant control freak or the job described as 'busy PA work' when it actually consisted of eight hours a day of waiting for a phone to ring then it was good to find this out before accepting a permanent job. It also provided an unparalleled opportunity to work in a variety of industries - I think I've worked in nearly everything from motor racing to timber research to education at some point.

There are, of course, downsides to temping. Like the time I turned up for a week's work for a consultant at a large hospital who first put me to work sorting paper from non-paper in the office of a recently deceased colleague (who, it seemed, had specialised in hoarding). He then shouted at me for correcting a misspelt word in one of his letters:
'If I write a word then I expect you to type it the same as I've written it, NOT insert your own interpretation of it!'
Or the time I worked at a company who had sacked the previous PA who had been very popular. Not one person spoke to me for a week. Or the manager who didn't have anything for me to do so sent me out to the factory to fill paint samples until an irate factory supervisor reminded him about health and safety. Or the boss who had the surname Bond, signed all his letters as 007 and kicked a whole bag of putrefying rubbish across the office in a temper which was left for me to pick up. Or the one-man company who was always out but wanted someone to answer the phone and do literally nothing else but stipulated that I was strictly not allowed to read or look at the computer. Get an answerphone, dude.

I've also been told to collect cars, clean toilets, fetch dry cleaning, go and get keys cut, deliver leaflets, find dentists, fill envelopes, book restaurants and order wine. Not to forget the relentless, infuriating tea and coffee making, as though we were all back in the Mad Man era. One agency tried to make me work at a company with a manual typewriter. Given this was the nineties, I can only assume they wanted someone to test a museum exhibit.

It's surprising how many people think it's OK to be rude to a temp and equally surprising how many people who think it's OK to sexually harass them but that's a whole other story. It's also surprising how many companies refuse to give temps work to do, seemingly preferring the indispensable person they're paying £££+VAT for to sit and stare at a wall for eight hours. My first temping job in London saw me finding a villa in the south of France for the volatile owner of a head-hunting company as nearly the first thing I did after walking through the door.

There's also the fact that people don't refer to you by name, instead re-christening you 'The Temp', or perhaps snapping their fingers while trying to remember your name before wittily coming up with 'Lisa MK2!'. There's the people who ostentatiously record to the exact minute what time you arrive and leave (ignoring the fact that most agencies back in the day rounded up to the nearest 15 minutes) while making a point of telling you that you wouldn't be able to slip a sneaky 30 minutes past them, even if that's probably what you do to everyone else. I didn't get holidays or sick days, so I basically never took them except for the time I had flu and the agency accused me of faking before sending my P45. Trust me, love, if I was capable of working, I'd be there because a week in bed means I have to borrow money to pay my rent.

How much did temps get paid back then? The first temp job I had paid £2.75 per hour and I aspired to £5.00 per hour which I managed to finagle from the company by working directly for them. A couple of years later as a student, I managed to scrape £6.50 per hour but this was exceptional - most jobs paid around £5.75. To give you some idea of the wage difference between the capital and the provinces, when I first temped in London (which was only about two years later), my hourly rate was £11.50 before I knew any better and rose to £15.50 once I did.

Fridays were the big day in temping. Companies continually failed to call the agency until Friday, even when they knew they'd need someone at least a couple of weeks before, and that was when I'd get the call from the agency. If I went to bed on a Friday without a job for the next week, Monday morning would be last chance saloon when the permies went sick or walked out.No job on Tuesday? No wine on Friday!

Oh, and the technology. When I first started out, everyone had electronic typewriters and some places even still made you use carbon paper. Carbon paper is a massive pain in the arse. You'd insert a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of A4 so there would be a copy of the letter you'd typed. Believe it or not, this still happened in the early nineties. WordPerfect 5.0, Word for Windows 3:1, mail merge, 5.25in floppy disks, 3.5in floppy disks, WYSIWYG, audio-typing from tiny tapes, Tippex. Also: telexes.

The thing with temping was that you had to make yourself as amenable and competent as possible so you'd be asked back or even given a longer term job. Two long-term temp jobs I had came about because I'd gone somewhere for a week or two and made a good impression so they asked me to stay longer. I was actually lucky with both of these because they were astonishingly flexible about the hours I worked and they got me through nearly two years of uni. One of them did make the bizarre stipulation that I wasn't allowed to arrive at work in my uni clothes and change in the loos like a normal person. This led to me changing in my car by the side of the road and one memorable occasion when a bus load of passengers saw me struggling into my blouse. The same manager also told me he didn't like my hair, clothes or makeup but presumably failed to find fault with my work. I mean, gosh, it wasn't like I was a goth or anything.

Why wasn't I permanent? Well, I wanted to be. I needed to be to pay my rent. I applied for jobs and went for interviews but being a student counted against me and agencies don't like to lose reliable temps who can do more than one thing at a time without drooling. One day, at one of the long-term jobs (where I'd missed lectures to work and gone in on Saturdays to keep up) every temp but me was called into the boss's office and offered a full-time role. I went home in tears but actually it ended up being one of the things that eventually got me out of the secretarial rut.

And now I'm permanent. And I don't have to do mail merges or make tea for anyone else but me.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Some Stuff On Stranger Shaming

Photo by chutney bannister
Over the last few months I've noticed an increase in people taking photos of fellow commuters and posting them to various Twitter and Facebook accounts. Usually, the people being photographed are transgressing the unwritten rules of public transport, like eating or having a large bag. Sometimes they're simply asleep, or just wearing something odd while being otherwise totally innocuous.

Yet some people seem to feel it's OK to take a photo of a total stranger without their consent and post it up for abuse and ridicule. Frankly, I think this sucks.

It made me so cross that I wrote about it for Londonist.

Now stop taking photos of people on your train for other people to laugh at.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sunday Video: Curve 'Fait Accompli'

I would have posted the video up here but YouTube doesn't appear to have a linkable copy in the UK. This is one of my favourite songs.

Curve 'Fait Accompli'


Sunday, 9 March 2014

Sunday Video: Dodgy 'Staying Out For The Summer'


Legal Aid, Food Banks And Benefit Sanctions

Photo by @c0unse1
I haven't done this for ages, so the list is actually far longer but here's a few of my recentish Londonist articles.

Walkout over legal aid cuts - Ministry of Justice cuts could leave vulnerable people with little or no legal representation.

356 London jobseekers sanctioned every day - the rise of spurious DWP sanctions and the hardship they cause.

Food bank use up 400% - looking at why increasing numbers of people are being forced to turn to food banks.

The housing crisis and banning overseas investors - would it solve London's housing problem?

Met police numbers down - police cuts, water cannon and empty promises.

Men charged with taking food from skip - the CPS's ludicrous pursuit of three London men caught taking unused food from an Iceland skip.

The huge emergency housing bill - how sanctions, benefit caps and the bedroom tax are costing the taxpayer more.

London's missed and fiddled targets - lies, damn lies and statistics.

Why we can't just change London's roads overnight.