Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Virgin, First, Common Sense Second

Mo Farah not visible.

It can’t have escaped the notice of even the least observant of you that I have some issues with Virgin Trains.  In truth, this goes back some way, as they were operating the West Coast Mainline (WCML) at a time when I spent a lot of time to-ing and fro-ing from Lancashire, where my parents still live.  I was also reliant on Virgin for much of my time in London, when my job involved frequent trips to Liverpool, Manchester, Stoke and Birmingham all of which are on the Virgin network.  I have to say that there were good journeys, but my overwhelming impression of the service is tainted by the rotten trains, which might be fast, but are always pokey (with the exception of first class).

You might have thought, as well, that as they lose their franchise to First, and start a legal campaign to challenge the decisions, I’d be fascinated by the battle that is unfolding.  Well, no, actually.  I also have experience of First Trains, having lived on the Great Western (GW) route for ten years and had the joy of using First Great Western for long periods of time.  First also operate trains in the north west, particularly the slower inter-city services and the lines filling in the gaps that the longer distance services have to speed through.  On the GW, First we’re fortunate in inheriting great trains – the Inter City 125 – but stripped out the comfy seating layout and crammed in as many seats as they could, making their interiors dark and sweaty with nowhere to store anything.  It seems to me that, whoever runs the railways, we’re doomed to a service that values profits over comfort, and that has a PR engine slicker than the railway engines.  No amount of complaining about the quality of the Pendolino to Virgin has made any goddam difference to the comfort of the trains (they insist that passengers are getting used to them, which suggests encroaching apathy to me), so what difference will public outrage about the latest round of rail franchise contracts make, whoever runs it?

What has been entertaining, however, is the coverage of the legal battle that Virgin are preparing for, on the back of the e-petition gathering over 100,000 public signatures in an attempt to have the procurement process revisited.  Quite how this can be revisited, and quite what First think of all this fuss, having entered a long and complex procurement process and won out, is anyone’s guess.  My favourite piece of reporting about the ongoing saga was on the BBC website on Sunday.  Not only, it was reported, has Lord Sugar backed the Branson campaign to urge the WCML contract to be reviewed, but also Mo Farah, the well known transport commentator (ahem) and double gold medal winning Olympian.  Quite what Mr. Farah adds to the debate is deeply questionable, and adding his name to give weight to the cause is rather shallow, particularly given his new role as an ambassador for Virgin Media.

Through this, it’s hard to balance what is worse; the shoddy and shambolic fragmentation on the railways, which offers a largely forgettable and functional service and an inability to coherently and constructively complain about it; the simplistic public outcry over procurement which seems based on idyllic ideas about a long running, yet average, rail service coupled with middle England’s inherent fear of change, or the use of an ‘of the moment’ public celebrity to add weight to a news story which has nothing to do with his particular expertise.

Or perhaps, what’s worse is that no-one seems to notice any of these things.


What Tony Nicklinson taught me about life and death

At the end of last week, morning commuters were greeted by their free Metro with the heartbreaking image of Tony Nicklinson weeping inconsolably.  Tomorrow, they will read about his passing, having refused food in the last few days.

Nicklinson suffered a stroke in 2005 which rendered him paralysed from the neck down, unable to communicate, yet fully conscious.  He regarded the latter stages of his life as, ‘dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable’ and he was adamant about his wish to die.  The emotional response to the High Court’s decision, last week, to throw out his plea to have a doctor end his life was plain for all to see.

Pro-life groups and the British Medical Association had welcomed the decision, and neither were seeking any changes to the law in the future.  Both claim that any change in the law would have dangerous consequences far beyond the circumstances of this particular case. The pro-life group SPUC have called the continuous efforts to change the assisted suicide laws in this country insidious, and consider that the only response to those who find themselves in a similar situation to Mr. Nicklinson is compassion and solidarity. No doubt, with his death, these groups will be relieved that they do not have to contemplate an appeal.

His death has to raise questions about why he couldn’t have resisted food before the case was heard, and thus have achieved his wish without the uncertainty that the case he brought had caused. It seems to suggest that someone has made a conscious decision not to feed Mr. Nicklinson, and it seems to be the case that what has resulted here is assisted suicide by the back door. The response to the news of his death will be interesting.

However, I’m deeply uneasy about the resistance to some kind of euthanasia policy in the UK. Without knowing Mr. Nicklinson personally, it does seem abundantly clear that he had a very strong desire not to go on living, and was effectively stopped from ending his life by the condition which made his life abhorrent. If he could have killed himself, he would; it seemed that he couldn’t and the compassionate response did seem to be an allowance of some kind to help him out.

I draw on some experience. My first wife suffered with a brain tumour for eight years. Over this time, her condition deteriorated, and she ultimately loss much of her sight and much of her memory. In her last two years of life, she needed help with literally every aspect of life. We had spoken at length over that eight years about the condition and it’s potential for producing life limiting effects. She was very much of the view that life was for living, but when that life became meaningless and could not be enjoyed as she had done for her early years, she would rather be set free.

It’s a very difficult situation to find yourself in as a carer. My wife’s life had, in the last 12 months or so, lost meaning. The lack of an ability to make memories, and her rapidly receding store of past memories, meant each day was effectively forgotten as soon as it occurred, and had no context. Her lack of sight compounded the problem of memory loss, and the absence of both made overcoming either condition impossible. She had cycles of deterioration, episodes of madness and days of chronic weakness. I could not ascertain her feelings about it, because she could not express them, but I think that she would have rather not lived than go on living in this way. Had she had an option of defining how she might die, via a medical route and when she was able to consciously consider it, knowing that this would have been implemented when she reached a certain point, I think she’d have taken it. As her husband, losing her was inconceivable, but so was letting her live as she was living.

But, we didn’t have that option. As her life drifted by and her condition worsened, it was up to her family to make decisions about her care with the medical team looking after her. We were asked about what to do in the event of seizures or events that would render her unconscious; we were asked about how far to go with pain relieving drugs and resuscitation. It was called end of life management, but it was about ensuring a pain free death where there is a terminal illness or an incurable but worsening illness. We set the criteria by which we would judge whether to act to perpetuate life, or not. In essence, it was defining the circumstances under which life would not continue.

I’m no expert or legal maestro, but it seems to me that there has to be a way of legitimising what is a fine line between this kind of end of life management and assisted suicide where a terminally ill person is clear about their wishes, as in the Nicklinson case, without compromising the lives of people who are coming to the end of their life in less harrowing circumstances. As an atheist, I do hope that some path can be found without being influenced by religious dogma. And, I hope it can be found before the next terminally ill person comes along who is forced to follow the tortuous path taken by Mr. Nicklinson and his family.

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Virgin on the implausible – a letter to Virgin Trains

Further to yesterday’s post, I’ve today written to Virgin Trains, along with enclosing a copy of the blog and various receipts.  This is what the letter said:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Please find enclosed my tickets and reservations from a recent return trip between London and Lancaster.  Both of these journeys were exceedingly uncomfortable owing to your awful trains, (which I have commented on in previous claims, but see no improvements), and both legs ran late, the outward leg (on which I didn’t even reach my destination with you) by three and a half hours.

I have also included a copy of my blog entry about the trip, which I have left on my Facebook page and tweeted to @richardbranson, @virgintrains and the travel journalist Christian Wolmar.  I have sent a link to the blog to Theresa Villiers MP, Secretary of State for Transport, in light of today’s laughable news that rail fares are going up again next year.

As well as the refund of the fare,  I am seeking compensation for the additional food I had to buy on the heavily delayed outward leg, and for my fathers petrol costs at a rate of 0.40p/mile, which is a business standard.  Naturally, I don’t expect any sympathy for the claim, but here’s an opportunity to surprise me.  Hence,
(a) Cost of rail ticket: £84.10
(b) Cost of food/drink purchased: £8.18 (receipt contained in outward leg claim only)
(c) Cost of petrol: 70 miles @ 0.40 = £28.00

Please note that because your compensation process requires a different envelope for each individual journey, I’m sending two copies of everything to you, so thanks for that, too.

I look forward to your fleetingly considered response.

I’ll let you know what comes back.


Virgin on the implausible

Only an indefinite period of time to go till journey’s end.

My latest trip by train from London to Morecambe to see my folks resulted in a delay which was greater than the intended time of the journey.  Rather than taking two and a half  hours, it took almost six, and I had to be rescued by my dad at Preston.

This is the latest calamitous episode in my relationship with Virgin Trains.  It appears to be the case that every time I make this journey, there are hideous delays.

The privatisation of the rail network was supposed to make things more efficient and effective.  It does appear to be the case that trains are growing in popularity, but how much of this is down to privatisation rather than, say, exponential increases in the use of cars, causing our roads to be less effective, is unclear.  Trains are clearly better used, but they’re also more expensive and more overcrowded than ever before.  Virgin operate the West Coast route, and beyond, say, Manchester or Birmingham, there is no alternative.  So much for  increasing competition.

So, for my latest journey, I arrived at Euston for the 1725 service to Glasgow Central.  I had 3 year old Toots in tow, and a little bit of luggage.  The cheapest option was for me to buy a ticket, which came with a seat reservation, and for Toots to travel for free, which did not have a seat reservation.  The service was full.  Our seat was in coach C.  The seat was at the end of the carriage and had no window.  In coach C, the ceiling drops because of the pantograph on the roof of the train, so the overhead luggage racks were not adequate for any of the bags I had.  So, I faced the prospect of having Toots on my knee for over two hours, with her entertainment in a bag that I couldn’t put anywhere except between my feet.

The Pendelino trains which run on this service are, apparently, the pride of Virgin Trains.  They are, in fact, some of the worst long distance trains on the whole of the rail network.  There was a time when all of the seats in a rail carriage had a table but, now, when profits are more important than the passengers comfort, very few seats have a table.  Pendelinos are especially cramped.  The windows are very low down, and the plastic interiors are pokey and unappealing.  For those with pushchairs or larger items of luggage, there is little or no space to adequately store these, and very rarely is storage in a place where access to them is easy.  Often, there is a hum of urine in the air from the toilets.  Wi-fi access has to be paid for (bizarrely, the access code for the internet seems to be emailed to you and, of course, without the code you can’t access your emails).   The buffet car has given way to a rather barren shop.  So, given the circumstances of this particular journey, and my loathing of the Pendelino, it was not a journey that I wanted to stretch out.

All was fine until Crewe.  Coming into the station, the ‘train manager’ warned that there was a trespassing incident between Warrington and Wigan to the north, and we’d be held at Crewe for an unspecified period of time.  As time went by, the doors of the train were opened, and passengers were invited to stretch their legs.  As more time went by, news rippled through to the passengers that the train would be going no further.

Panic and confusion followed, with no-one really knowing how to proceed.  There were upward of 500 passengers now stranded at Crewe, already a hour behind schedule, some expecting to reach Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Those travelling as far as Lancaster were advised to travel to Manchester and change for ‘other services’, and so I made my way with a large crowd for that train (which arrived into Crewe late, and 20 minutes after the time I was due at my final destination).  On the Manchester train, the ‘train manager’ gave the passengers for Warrington, Wigan and Preston further instructions, but not those travelling to Lancaster.  She invited queries at her office in coach C but, on this train, I was in coach H, still with an increasingly weary 3 year old and an extra trains worth of people standing in the vestibules and aisles between H and C.  Via the internet, I was able to find out that, in fact, there were no trains from Manchester to Lancaster at that time on a Sunday evening, at which point I called my father to ask if he’d do a 70 mile round trip to pick me up at Preston. Which he did.  Virgin failed to get me to my destination, and I arrived home at 11.15, three and a half hours late.

As it happened, there was continuing confusion at Manchester.  The train arrived just as most of the food places were closing.  Different people for different destinations were huddled in little groups, but were ultimately told to go as far north as possible for now and find out more when you got further north (which meant everyone was on the same, very overcrowded, train to Preston unsure of what they’d be told on arrival there).  As I found my dad at Preston, there was a rumour of a train to Glasgow, but they were unfounded, and I have no idea what became of passengers going further north that night.

There were a number of things that I perceived between Crewe and Preston.  First, the Virgin staff at Crewe weren’t talking to each other, as I received different information from two different members of staff.  It seemed that there was no real plan for passengers – the advice was to just keep going north but, when that process stopped, it was not clear what would happen.  This made it hard for passengers to give news to people waiting for them.  Overhead conversations between Virgin staff on the train to Preston confirmed that they didn’t know what was going on a lot of the time, and they couldn’t respond effectively to passengers.  It also appeared that Virgin staff had different access to information about what was going on themselves.  At Manchester, staff from other train companies were not equipped to deal with the enquiries from Virgin passengers.

As it happens, I was hoping to get to Lancaster to have some dinner and watch the Olympics closing ceremony.  I missed the ceremony and dinner; dinner instead was  a pasty from Manchester Piccadilly, and Toots had a croissant.  The purpose of my journey was to drop Toots with my parents and return the next day – indeed, I’m writing this on the return journey, which is already 30 minutes late.  My back is aching from leaning over the computer, which is balanced on a flap pulled down from the seat in front of me.  I paid £84.10 for the return ticket, which I consider to be over-priced given my experiences.  I don’t expect to be compensated to much of a degree;  certainly, there’ll be some of the ticket refunded in rail vouchers (certainly not cash, although I distinctly remember paying with cash, and not rail vouchers), but not all of it, and I certainly don’t expect to see any sympathy for the food I’ve had to buy additionally on route, nor the petrol used by my dad in picking me up.

Worst of all, I have the whole Virgin experience to do next weekend with my wife and 4 month old Bub between London and Lancaster, returning on the Monday with both children.  Given this terrible experience, I’m not looking forward to it at all.

And the return journey arrived in Euston 35 minutes late.

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Louise Mensch – A let down for all women?

And so, Louise Mensch has resigned.  She was a high profile Conservative MP, known best for her past as a chick-lit author, her strong appearances on Question Time and during the phone hacking hearings, and for being a bit of a cutie (if you like your women power dressed, Tory and much more intelligent than you).  Apparently, it’s all got a bit too much for her, and she’s off to New York to spend more time with her family and husband.

And there’s been such a terrible, bitchy backlash on the back of the resignation, mainly from women who seem to think she’s letting the side down and that feminism is taking some giant jump backwards.  It’s all rather pathetic – Liz Jones, writing in the Daily Mail, attacks her ‘sculpted brows’ and calls her an ‘over-privileged princess’ having, ‘done the dirty’.  Kathy Lette bemoans the marriage altar upon which women sacrifice themselves to become ‘human handbags’, draped decoratively over their husband (which is an odd image).  Yasmin Alibhai-Brown seems to think that the children are being used as an alibi for Mensch’s globe trotting lifestyle.

The truth is, only Louise Mensch knows why she’s quitting politics.  And for me, she can do as she likes.  She’s obviously bright, creative, talented and ambitious.  However, she also has a husband and a family.  I don’t see why she shouldn’t chose to spend more time with them, if she so desires, and I don’t see why that lets women down.

Whilst journos write these hurtful – and speculative – things about someone they don’t even know, back in the real world the overriding impression I have from my contemporaries is that the maternal urge in women is very strong.  Women who have had careers, and have excelled in them, often want families, and when they raise their families they want to re-order their working lives to ensure that they spend time with them.  I think this is partly a subconscious, biological urge.  However, my guess is that the same need to re-order their priorities is true of many men.

However, we still live in a ridiculous society which is set up to favour women as the main child-rearer and men as the main bread-winner.  This is fundamentally wrong.  It’s consolidated by the stark division in the media and publications we’re fed, the benefits available to us and the way that childcare is structured, amongst other things.  And there will always remain the fact that women have to bear the child in the first place, and have a connection with their child that a man can never experience or understand.  Women still seem to be under immense pressure to achieve it all (often in the name of feminism), and most find that it just isn’t possible to do everything.

So, for me, Louise Mensch can do just what she likes.  She’s not setting feminism back, or letting women down.  She’s demonstrating that, even with her talent and energy, she is ultimately trapped by her biology, dictated to by an unbalanced society which both assumes women are responsible for bringing up children and that they can ‘have it all’, and held to the maternal urges she no doubt feels towards her family and children.


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How Costa Cost(s)

I’ve just heard a tale from the Devon town of Totnes. Totnes is a rather unique place, full of independent retailers, quirky, one-off shops and a very single minded and left-field populous who have got to a point where they’re so protective of the town and its character that they’ve introduced their own currency. Other places have followed suit, but Totnes was first.

The tale involves the coffee chain Costa, who have just gained permission for a shop in town, despite many hundreds of letters of objection against this happening. Many of the objections have cited the Coalition Government’s apparent desire to have planning matters more closely controlled by the community affected as a reason to refuse it – they didn’t want Costa to infiltrate their rather special place, and on that basis they argue that it should be refused.  The problem with this is that the person or organisation who runs the coffee house is not a planning consideration; the planning concerns revolve around the suitability of the proposal in the place it is proposed.  As it was in the town centre, and utilising a vacant shop unit, the planners had little choice but to approve it.  This appears to be a big problem with the Coalition’s ambitions to put power with the people.

A similar situation has arisen here, in South Tottenham, where a very concerted effort on the part of a local community at Wards Corner has sought to protect an Edwardian building from being demolished – along with a locally run group of shops containing local independent traders.  The might of Grainger PLC has finally won out, with a redevelopment of the corner now having the green light.  The historic building will be demolished, the traders there at the moment will be relocated, and some nationally recognised cafes and traders will move in.

I suspect that there may be environmental and economic benefits in doing this, and that there will be some winners.  However, what I have found in my work around London is that new development tends to strip away the beating hearts of places.  Bland, generic architecture, the same few national traders selling the same stuff, and the same old options for food drink and leisure are making places uniform and stomping all over our heritage, our identity and what makes us different from place to place, community to community.

It would seem that the planning system should be there to protect difference and to celebrate it; to make local business and local traders prosper; to protect heritage and character where it exists, and most of all, to respond to the knowledge and experience of local people when they give their thoughts about how places should be developed.

It would seem, on the basis of these two cases, that we’re not quite there yet.

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A Rye Smile

We went to the south coast for the weekend. Bexhill was our main destination, not least for the magnificent De La Warr pavillion, which I’d wanted to see for a long time, but also because – as a place – it features heavily in and around Keane’s new album, ‘Strangeland’.  Bexhill was a remarkably pleasant seaside resort; gentile, welcoming, easy going, unspectacular but rather comforting to be in for a chap of my advancing years.  It was odd to feel quite familiar with a place I’d never been to before.

Before heading back to London on the Sunday, we decided to travel east along the Kent coast, heading in the general direction of Dungerness, but passing through Hastings and stopping for lunch in Rye.

I’ve been to Rye before, and know of it’s reputation for being quaint, cobbled and wealthy. It has a charming setting, surrounded by water, with a couple of old gatehouses and a picturesque church at the heart. Vanessa Feltz was in the centre of town, minding her own business, reading the Sunday papers, and people generally milled about in the mid-summer sunshine.

We stopped at Fletcher’s House for lunch (Fletcher was apparently a contemporary of Shakespeare, and lived in the town) and took a table with the kids in the rear garden.  It was quiet, but we were soon joined by a couple of older ladies, perhaps from out of town, but certainly well-to-do and relatively local.  The spoke at each other, rather than having conversation, and much of it was head-crunchingly banal.  However, there were a couple of gems overheard.

“We had to put one of the alpaca down this week”. Seemingly, one of the herd had approached the younger of the two women, and collapsed, which was heartbreaking to overhear.  I only hope they saved the wool.  Later, the same woman told an amazing story of a peacock that had infiltrated her own flock of peacocks and become quite vicious.  She’d had to beat it off with a rake.  I’m not sure this is entirely legal, but both stories certainly made me happy that I cannot afford alpaca, peacocks, or a house in Rye, and live in the relative sanity of north London. The home counties sound far too complicated.

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New experiences

Unable to resist the lure of a buzzing central London in the height of the Olympics, and keen to see how, at the same time, it can be so quiet, I trekked to Old Street and through the City to the river today.

It seemed to me that London was a little quiet, maybe even subdued, but there was a sense that something was going on somewhere.  There were plenty of people wandering about in London 2012 merchandise, or team colours, and various countries have a presence on or around the river and the South Bank in particular.  I guess the problem is that people who are here for the Olympics are going to be in Stratford, or spread the about the various venues across the capital, most of which are nowhere near the centre.  The expectation that central London would benefit from some massive spendathon seems to be horribly misjudged.

That said, I did have a new experience today.  Welcome to my world, the Boris bikes.  I’ve been rather scathing about these in the past, but decided that today would be the day to put them to the test, given the quiet roads and the desire to stay above ground and see what’s going on in and around central London.  And, wow, I did enjoy the experience!  The bikes are easy to hire, nice to ride and they give a great view of London.  Knowing the geography of the city clearly helped, but I’ve pedalled round the City, over Tower Bridge, to Borough Market, across to the Festival Hall, back to Bloomsbury and through Clerkenwell. I’ve seen stuff I’ve never seen before, had a lung full of air and felt virtuous with the exercise.  Boris, I take it all back; your bikes are groovy!

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Getting some perspective

I’m making my regular jaunt to Starbucks to get some fresh air and a fresh environment to get my head around what I need to do to make my business push on.  In the queue, the young lady in front of me is discussing her plan with the barista to see Spiderman at the cinema tonight.  “Is it in 3D?”, asks the barista. She wasn’t sure, and neither am I, but the conversation went on around the experience of the 3D film, the disbenefits of wearing glasses, the headaches, how stupid everyone looks and the inconvenience of having to wear the glasses over spectacles. It was interesting how, in that minute or so of conversation, several problems were mentioned, but no benefits.

Now, I have to state some interest in the debate around 3D film, but only as a regular listener to the Mayo and Kermode Film Review on Radio 5.  This rather wonderful programme has a number of running debates, one of which is the merit of 3D in film.  Whilst Mayo often comments on the merits of 3D in a positive way, and not exclusively playing devil’s advocate, Kermode is of the firm belief that 3D is a passing phase and is already on it’s way out.  Now, I’ve only seen the one 3D film, that being the awful ‘Clash of the Titans’, in which the 3D had the sophistication of a children’s pop up book.  I also recently saw, for the first time, ‘Avatar’, famously made in 3D by James Cameron, on TV in wonderful 2D.  I feel that, in judging both of these films, the absence or presence of 3D was entirely irrelevant, and the films stood largely  on the quality of the story, the characters and the way the two interacted.  Titans certainly wasn’t improved by being in 3D, and the spectacle of Avatar won’t, I suspect, be massively enhanced by seeing it in 3D.

I would think twice about seeing a film in 3D, not least because of the problems covered by the coffee shop discussion, but also because of the price premium put on 3D showings.  But worse than that, for me, is the idea that these films are being sold as improved in some way by being in 3D.  They aren’t.  And we’re not seeing anything new; the world around us is in 3D, and we can appreciate it without silly glasses.  And what’s more, the skill of the filmmaker in creating worlds and bringing them to us, their use of their tools and their skills, their talent with cinematography and visual effects, their use of power and emotion, should be ample to bring us in, without resorting to cheap tricks enabled by cumbersome glasses.  Perhaps the best part is that they can manage to create awe-inspiring and memorable events within the constraints presented by the discipline.

Notwithstanding the possible improvements in 3D which do away with the glasses, and the possible realisation that good storytelling is more enduring than gimmicks, my money would have to be with Kermode.

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