Confessions of a Snow Friend

In the summer of 2015 the local council called for volunteers to be ready to grit and clear pavements in case of a heavy snowfall in the coming winter. It sounded like a satisfyingly mindless yet civic-minded thing to do, and also something I could square in my mind with a natural reluctance to help a Tory-run council.

No local authority of any political persuasion had ever cleared snow from pavements as far as I know, so it wouldn’t be as if I was making it easier for the council to quietly stop doing something it had previously taken responsibility for. The only time I’ve seen a city employee clearing snow from pavements was in 1980’s West Berlin. It was early morning, just hours after heavy snow had started to fall, and a man was operating a sort of mechanical pavement plough. He wore no gloves, I recall. No wonder the German army was so close to defeating Russia in WW2.

Back to 2015 and a small band of volunteers – not one of us under 50 – met at Kingston council’s offices to receive instructions about when to grit, and to get taken through a few health and safety dos and don’ts. Then we were issued with warm gloves, anti-slip snow grippers, a big snow shovel and a hi-viz yellow tabard emblazoned with the Snow Friends logo. The grit caddies would be delivered later.

I made my way home in bright sunshine wearing shorts and sunnies and incongruously carrying a two-metre  snow shovel.

I waited for the worst the winter could throw at New Malden
It was a long wait. There was no snow in the winter of 2015/16 or again the following year. But then came 2018 and the warnings about the Beast from the East. My time had come. But where was the grit? I asked the council’s twitter feed and within a few days about 20 kilos of the stuff arrived in a big plastic container. The idea is to scoop out about two kilos at a time into a smaller caddy and use a small hand shovel to scatter it on the pavement as you slowly walk along. Then you go back and refill.

An email from the council provided a weather forecast but fell short of actually telling us when we should get to work, which I thought was a bit lame. So I kept listening to the BBC, checking Metcheck and asking Siri and Alexa until, on a cold day in late February, everyone agreed that snow was imminent. To the dressing-up box!

There was proper snow after the Beast from the East. This pic was taken a few weeks later, during the Least from the East.

First, I tried out my improvised pavement grit spreader, a repurposed garden tool designed for spreading grass seeds. I assembled the contraption, filled it with a handful of grit, gave it a little push and it seemed to work. My stroke of inspiration meant I wouldn’t have to keep going back for grit refills.

Gritspreader not fit to grit
However, my test drive in the garden wasn’t indicative of actual conditions out in the field, or rather the pavement. A full load of grit clogged the spreader’s outlets, resulting in only a few grains falling through as I pushed the thing forwards. So I tried a vigorous up-and-down shaking motion as I walked, looking like someone with Parkinson’s struggling to control an unruly garden implement. The technique lasted just a few steps before I inadvertently yanked the handle out of the hopper part. I picked up the pieces and took them home.

Clearly not designed for heavy-duty gritting work. Any fool can see that.

When two gritters meet
So it was back to the council-approved manual method. I started gritting the route I take when I’m walking to the railway station, which is to say the route most commuters, somewhat bizarrely, don’t. (A spatial phenomenon I bored blogged about here).  I’d only got half-way down the road when I spotted a council worker rapidly advancing towards me. He was gritting the pavement too, using a rugged hand-operated grit spreader that was clearly designed for the purpose, unlike my lightweight plastic effort. The grit was spraying out evenly in an impressive metre-wide arc. He ran while he gritted, which I thought was keen. He clattered past without a word, spreading grit more efficiently over where I’d just been with my laborious and now decidedly analogue scoop-and-scatter technique.

There was no point continuing, so I switched routes. Remembering my earlier commitment to civic-mindedness, I chose the route that people actually take as they head to the station, even though they’re clearly wrongheaded about this.

I devise a plan to prevent the problem of double-gritting
I reached about half way to the station before exhausting my supply of grit. Back home, I emailed the council requesting more. I also annotated a Google map showing where I’d been. Perhaps, I suggested, they might post an interactive version of the map on the council’s website so that volunteers could see where fellow Snow Friends had gritted, thus eliminating duplication.

They were so overwhelmed with the brilliance of my brainwave that they were rendered incapable of forming a coherent response, or indeed an incoherent one. My email went unheeded, my grit caddy was never replenished and, despite more snow falling and ice forming over the following days, my Snow Friend days appeared to be at an end. But if my efforts helped prevent just one child from slipping into the path of an out-of-control juggernaut, it will all have been worthwhile.

 

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“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

A pipe-smoker from years ago, or perhaps from Yorkshire last week.

Mr Watmough certainly did things a bit differently. He was the geography teacher at my school in Bournemouth back in the 1960s. He doubled as the school’s second-tier, hands-off rugby coach who never once actually played any rugby, and tripled as the drama teacher for the boys who’d chosen drama as their ‘special subject’.

This was the name given to the one-hour period each week in which pupils could learn about a topic not covered by the national curriculum. As the other ‘special’ subjects included chess, running about and, unbelievably, additional maths, I chose drama.

There were around 18 of us budding thespians, not that we would have known what thespian meant at the age of 14. We didn’t have an allocated classroom so met in the dining hall about an hour before the dinner ladies started preparing that day’s heated sludge. We’d read parts of Macbeth, pretend to be other people, improvise dramatic conflicts, learn to project our voices (which we probably understood to mean ‘shouting’) and generally have a welcome break from the day’s usual routine of maths, double maths, corporal punishment and maths.

Mr Watmough smoked a pipe and he probably thought that teaching arty-farty, trendy-wendy drama in a room that wasn’t technically a classroom gave him permission to light up during the lesson. So he got out his pipe, filled the bowl with St Bruno, fished around for his box of Swan Vestas, struck a match, applied the flame to the tobacco until giant plumes of smoke began billowing around him and simultaneously replaced the match back in the box and put it in his pocket.

Then his jacket caught fire.

It wasn’t an instant conflagration by any means. A few moments passed before a curling wisp of smoke began snaking out of his right-hand pocket. We watched transfixed as Mr Watmough continued listening intently to a boy somewhere behind me who was extemporising haltingly about life being but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage; the boy’s powers of concentration evidently compromised by the drama unfolding before him.

We should have said something, obviously. Was there not an ounce of common humanity between us? What if it was our own father slowly incinerating before our very eyes?  Of course we’d raise the alarm. And as the flames took hold, one of us did. “Sir!”

“Shut up, Bailey.”

“Sir! You jacket’s on fire!”

Seized by a sudden panic, old Watmough began beating his flaming pocket with a vigour he’d never displayed on the touchline of the rugby pitch. The dining room filled with smoke: from his pipe, from the wood and cardboard of the matchbox and from the material of his ancient sports jacket. I swear I can remember the awful stench of a singed leather elbow patch, although that may be amusing-but-false memory syndrome kicking in.

I was reminded of the incident yesterday when Donald Trump suggested it might be a good idea to give guns to teachers. My experience of teachers – of those who raged and lashed out, who relied on whisky to get them through the day, who seemed to derive pleasure from assaulting and humiliating young boys and who could actually set themselves on fire during a lesson – strongly suggests that this strategy might not be entirely without risk.

 

[edit] Although some boys could do with a clip round the ear!!!!!!!!!11

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OOH WHAT?!

I took a pop at a poster for breakfast cereal Shreddies a while back. If you think I spend a lot of time looking at posters, you’re right.

This one caught my eye today.


It’s a nice line. Well-played, TUI. Wait, is it an ad for TUI or London Gatwick? A bit of both, actually. Co-funded. They want you to book a TUI holiday and fly from Gatwick instead of choosing a competitor’s holiday and flying from somewhere else. Heathrow, maybe. But Heathrow isn’t hundreds of miles away, it’s about 12, or roughly half the distance of Gatwick. Heathrow is THE local airport as far as anyone reading this particular poster is concerned.

They must mean Luton and Stanstead, where competitors like RyanAir and EasyJet fly from. So I guess the ad is saying ‘Don’t fly from Luton or Stanstead, either of which involves a drive of hundreds of miles.’ (They’re basically ignoring LHR altogether. The two have history.) But if that’s the case they have a very shaky grasp of geography, because neither of those airports is much more than 50 miles away from this poster. A there-and-back trip to Stanstead clocks in at a shade over 104 miles. Does that qualify as ‘hundreds of miles’? I think not, the same as a man owning 15 books can’t be said to have a collection of ‘dozens’. So the headline is being disingenuous at best.

Hang on, you might think. The poster’s surely aimed at people who really do live hundreds of miles from an airport that isn’t Gatwick (or Heathrow). If so, why place it at this spot? This is where it gets a bit strange, because the poster isn’t 4 sheets of paper like in the old days. It’s digital, and an example of programmatic advertising. That means (if you didn’t already know) that its location and the time and duration of its appearance can be controlled remotely. So the media agency could have placed it in areas that are genuinely a hundred miles or more from Luton or Stanstead. Or maybe they just thought fuck it, let’s stick the ad everywhere and hope there aren’t too many people around who’ll, you know, read it.

For what it’s worth, I think Gatwick’s strapline ‘YOUR LONDON AIRPORT’ is easily on the same level as Tui’s ‘DISCOVER YOUR SMILE’ 😉

Here’s one for Specsavers:

I was going to criticise it as a poster (who he? why the silly photo-related name?), but then did a bit of rudimentary research and discovered that it’s part of a not-at-all bad campaign by Specsavers’ in-house team. Take a look here. The performances are a tad David Brent and perhaps could have been more subtle without losing anything, but it’s still a campaign I’d be happy to have been involved in. Although I’d have chosen a different surname.  ‘Shutter’ doesn’t help the idea.

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Shaz-am puzzled

I found a new playlist on my Spotify account the other day, called ‘My Shazam Tracks’. Surprise number one was discovering that Shazam and Spotify already know each other. I can’t remember making any introductions. But there they were, together on my phone, probably talking about me behind my back.

Surprise number two was finding out exactly what was on ‘My Shazam Tracks’. I’ve used Shazam maybe half a dozen times – in pubs or offices or listening to the radio, hearing a song and wanting to know its name and who it was by. Like everyone else, I suppose.

But instead of My Shazam Tracks showing just these few songs, it displayed a list of dozens. The ones I remember Shazamming were there – tracks by Bonobo, Caribou and a John Williams film score. But so too were others so familiar to me I’d never need an app to identify them. Songs by Stevie Wonder, Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa, the Stones… The idea of holding my phone in front of a speaker to find out who was responsible for ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ is ridiculous. I’m not even a huge fan of either song, although I won’t skip to the next track if they come on, something I’d definitely do with Iggy Pop’s version of Louie Louie. That’s one of ‘My Shazam Tracks’, apparently.

So what’s going on? I asked @SpotifyCares on Twitter and they suggested I contact @Shazam. @Shazam were clearly too busy wondering how they were going to spend the $400m that’s about to fall into their lap courtesy of Apple.

So it remains a puzzle, and one which today developed another layer of puzzlement.

Keen to learn whose record was being played on BBC 6Music, I turned to the digital display of my radio. As is so often the case, this potentially useful aspect of DAB was being used to tell listeners the name of the DJ rather than the song being played. Then I remembered Shazam, and it turned out the song was Nadine Shah singing Holiday Destination. I saw that I could add it to my Spotify playlist. So I tapped the icon and up came this:

So I can’t physically add tracks that I like to ‘My Shazam Tracks’. Instead, a variety of songs – some good, some less so – is added to the playlist on my behalf by entities unknown.

It’s a funny old topsy-turvy world and no mistake.

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My daughters, then and now

The ‘now’ being December 2017, when they presented their mum with a calendar featuring 12 images from their past juxtaposed with contemporary recreations.

There were tears then, and I suspect in years to come there will be more.

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

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Why you can’t start a sentence with ‘And’

You can, of course. That headline was pure clickbait. And it worked! My blog now has a new follower. I wonder if he’ll ever meet the other one?

But anyway, where did this you-can’t-start-a-sentence-with-and thing come from? We’re all pretty sure it was a teacher who first laid down this particular law, but where did THEY get it from?

That’s easy. They got it from you. From when you were in junior school. *cue shimmery effect*

You’ve been asked to write a composition about what you did on your school holidays. Cool, your seven-year-old self thinks. There’s loads to write about there! So, head resting on bent left arm, your right hand inexpertly manipulating a 2B pencil and your tongue half-protruding from your pre-pubescent lips, off you go. ‘I went to Spain with my mummy and daddy and I was aloud to stay up late and I saw lots of stars and we had brekfast by the poool where I dropped my camara and daddy got cross and then we went to Aunty Julias’ house in Door Set and…’ And so on, and on.

Your teacher looks at your essay and says how interesting your holiday sounds, but it would read better if you split the story into more than one sentence. So, with playtime rapidly approaching, you do something you think is dead smart. You sprinkle a few full stops here and there. They seem to work best when they precede an ‘and’. Then you remember that a sentence always begins with a capital letter, so gripping your pencil firmly you turn the lower-case ‘a’s into upper-case ‘A’s. There. No wonder English is your favourite subject.

I’m not having that, thinks the teacher. That’s just too easy. I’ll show them. She thinks for a moment. “This is better,” she says. “But you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’. Write it out again.”

*cue shimmers*

So there we have it. We’re all to blame, us and our anything-for-an-easy-school-life ways. Of course, once ‘And’ was forbidden from ever leading a sentence, other poor conjunctions were doomed to suffer the same fate.

If only your seven-year-old self was smart enough to say ‘But Miss, there’s an ‘and’ at the beginning of that hymn we sing!”

“I don’t think so!”

“There is, Miss, there is! *sings* And did those feet, in ancient times…”

 

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Full list of rules pertaining to the wearing of Poppies

 

As we approach Poppy Day and all the kerfuffle that inevitably accompanies it, just what are the rules about wearing Poppies?

Here’s your at-a-glance, cut-out-and-pin-to-your-lapel guide.

Q When should you start wearing your Poppy?
A You’d think a reasonable answer would be ‘when they go on sale.’ But some people seem to get hold of theirs before that, so maybe there are places that sell them all year round. You can buy fireworks in February, so why not Poppies in May? Although actually wearing it in May might look a bit odd. Basically, there are no rules. Go with your instinct.

Q You HAVE to wear one though, don’t you?
A No. It’s entirely up to you. You can respect Britain’s war dead without signalling it to everyone. And you can plonk money in the tin without choosing to fiddle with the pin and Poppy part. Again, no rules.

Q Why the capital P for Poppy?
A You’re right. It doesn’t need one.

Q Should you wear it on the left or the right?
A Yes. Either side is acceptable. Anywhere, really. I have mine on my backpack. That’s because I wear my backpack every day, rather than on a jacket that I might wear one day before swapping for a raincoat the next. There are no rules about where you should wear it.

Q The leaf on the poppy should point to 11 o’clock, right?
A No. It can point up, down, left or right. It doesn’t matter and there’s no rule.

Q The poppy is a highly visible example of wasteful, single-use plastic, isn’t it?
A Yes, but don’t expect the Daily Mail to point this out in their anti-plastic campaign.

Q Will wearing an expensive poppy made from shiny enamel show that I care more deeply about our glorious dead?
A Possibly. The other interpretation is that you bought one of them years ago and now wear it year after year without donating another penny, you heartless cheapskate.

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