The meaning of stuff

Lately I’ve been thinking about stuff.

Just over thirteen years ago I packed my stuff into a half container and had it shipped across the world. A year later, when I finally moved into a tiny flat in South West London, I can still remember how thrilled I was to have my stuff all around me again. I remember filling the drawers of my beautiful wooden sideboard with games, crockery and assorted bits and pieces and ripping into the box marked CDs to plug into some much-missed Aussie favourites. It felt like Christmas and a birthday all rolled into one.

Spending so much time at home at the moment has made me realise how much stuff I have. Most of this original shipment is still with me and my years here – and a move to a bigger flat five and a half years ago – has seen me accumulate more.

What has struck me is how it runs my life. Last week, I spent almost three hours re-staining my 5-year-old outdoor setting. It was not a fun experience and as a mucky pup, I managed to get the wood stain in all sorts of places it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s a big job that’s been ticked off the list and I’m really pleased with how it looks. Until I have to do it again…

Outdoor setting freshly stained

Almost 3 hours of work and it looks great. But I know I’ll have to do it again…and again.

I saw Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, interviewed earlier in the year. It was clear that he’d been considering this as well.

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” 

His point was this. Before we caught on to the idea of cultivating more wheat than we needed, we hunted and gathered only as much food as we could eat, following and staying where the food source took us. Wheat had us stop and settle, invest time and energy and resources – including the building of fences and the shovelling of sh*t – to preserve and protect it. His question is ‘do we really think we are running the show?’

My question is now, ‘has my outdoor setting domesticated me?’

Stuff is everywhere. And here in London you cannot travel far without coming across a testament to it – a museum. And it’s been in visiting some of the smaller ones recently that has got me thinking about what stuff means and why preserve it.

In the last couple of months, I’ve visited the home of wealthy industrialist, Frank Green in York, the Hampstead home of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna and the home of architect and collector Sir John Soane in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields. For me, these personal collections of antiquities, curiosities and everyday items created a much greater sense of the person’s story and time. I was especially fascinated to learn that:

  • Sir John Soane was such an avid collector that he bought the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharoah Seti I (1303 – 1290 BC) when the British Museum ran out of money after it had secured the controversial Elgin Marbles.
  • Sigmund Freud was so attached to his stuff that he refashioned the study he had in Vienna in his new home in London, including THAT couch.
Freud Museum montage

Freud lived at Bergasse, 19 in Vienna for 47 years. Before he fled to London in 1938, he had his rooms in Vienna photographed with a view to recreating them in his new home.

Without stuff, how would we get a sense of what has happened before or what life was like? And yet the physical stuff is not the whole picture.

I attended a breakfast seminar in April which addressed the question of stuff. There was a lot of talk about decluttering, connoisseurship and the trend towards spending on experiences rather than things. Research shows that the Millennial generation in particular (born between the early 80’s and the late 90’s) are tending to share and access stuff versus owning it. Perhaps this is a conscious choice about being unencumbered and financial enough to travel, attend events, concerts and festivals, eat out and, as one media pundit noted, ‘drink their £4 coffees’.

The digital discussions around music (iTunes), streaming services (Netflix/Amazon Prime) and e-books were also interesting and in the face of their continued growth, the non-digital experiences associated with all three industries are being revisited. Vinyl has become the choice of the cool connoisseur. Cinemas are providing VIP services and collaborating with live event providers eg. theatre, opera, ballet and even the annual TED Conference, to expand their audience and revenue opportunities. And books? Well, e-book share is highest in the US, having grown to 25% since 2009, yet only 7% of people state that they will read only e-books in the future. (Source: PWC – The future of e-books 2016). That seems to me to be a gap for stuff to fill…

Here at Gidday HQ, the past few months have been chequered with bi-weekly trips to the charity shop as I’ve been weeding stuff out of cupboards, drawers and wardrobes. In the words of Steve Howard, CEO of global stuff purveyor IKEA…

If we look on a global basis, in the west I’d say we’ve probably hit peak stuff.” 

…and my cupboards probably agree. But with IKEA’s sales up 4.8%, their expansion into new markets going strong and the opening of their IKEA Museum in 2016, I’d say ‘I don’t think so’.

Consider this. How often have you been trapped shopped in the IKEA Market Hall and found yourself putting a funky new toilet roll holder (that you had to have) onto the checkout conveyor next to the matching-colander-and-spatula-set (that will be very handy) and yet-another-bag of 100 tea light candles (because we might’ve run out)? And who doesn’t love a Billy bookshelf – the home for books (and most likely other stuff) that ‘loves to grow’?

No. We like stuff. We like the stories stuff tells us about ourselves – how much or little of it we have, what it all means about us. And we like to check out other people’s stuff – in museums, on social media, on the bus – and decide what we think it means about them.

So to my mind, our relationship with stuff is still going strong and digitisation is just encouraging us to get more and more of it. Case in point: My Kindle currently holds 70+ books, about what I would normally read in a year. (I also have a bookshelf full of ‘proper’ books.)

But in our world of curated content and social media profiles, the tangible and/or visible stuff only tells part of our story. I wonder what the people who will populate the centuries ahead will imagine about us based on this – the visible/tangible stuff we leave behind? I’m not talking about the impact on the environment – that’s a question that could fill several blog posts – but about the minutiae of our daily lives.

And actually, come to think of it, what will the people, the ones who will be buying my pre-loved items from the local op-shop, think about me!?

When enough is enough

Last Wednesday, I was horrified to read a mother’s plea for advice upon learning that her daughter had been bullied. As I read her Facebook post, she described that nasty phone calls had escalated into an incident where her daughter had been followed home from school by two girls from another school. She had been subjected to a barrage of obscenities and comments that to film it all ‘would be funny’.  Her daughter’s threats to call the police made no difference and it wasn’t until a woman jogging by intervened that she fled home and revealed all to her mother.

I felt inspired by the way this Facebook conversation developed. Many reached out with words of support and some with experience of handling this – parents and teachers – offered practical advice about what to do next. To date it sounds like positive steps have been taken in partnership with the school. But it was shocking to read. And all the more so given the date of the post.

Wednesday was 8th March. International Women’s Day.

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A question of culture: Assimilate or die?

This week I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world. I fell across them late last year in attending a provocative discussion between Sir David Tang and Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan and have been keen to attend something else ever since.

This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (and what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.

I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about 18 months ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.

But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.

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No accounting for trust

I’ve been to a couple of events this week that have got me thinking about trust.

The first was called No Dust and was billed as an evening of conversation around the referendum outcome, admonishing us not to let the dust settle on Brexit. It was an evening of two halves with the first given over to the feelings the result evoked, high points (for me) being:

  • Annie King-Ferguson, a 16-year-old poet – she played an original song conveying her frustration at her ineligibility to vote and have her voice be represented in the outcome;
  • Andra Sonea, a Romanian technologist and blogger living in the UK who shared some parallels between the Brexit movement and what has played out in the country of her birth.

The second half was shorter with the best part being the three speakers who explored post-Brexit possibilities. This included reconstructing government and looking to digital technologies to define new paths for democracy. Both of these were with the aim of getting the entire nation to be part of an ongoing conversation about the future, not just whenever a referendum is called.

The evening felt quite unbalanced with litanies of stories and ‘evidence-producing’ over-running in the first half because people wanted to finish ‘their say’ regardless of time which left me pretty low on energy and enthusiasm for the remainder of the evening. It also left me wondering just how much was true, how much selective editing was involved and if there was actually anyone, anything or even anywhere I would trust to give me the whole story.

The second was a networking event and forum later in the week where we asked whether it was possible to rebuild trust beyond the lies and scandals that have become our daily news fodder. The evening covered war, big business and finding purpose and the three speakers were invited to give a ten minute perspective before questions were invited from the audience. The pursuit of trust has become a vocal ambition for politicians, business leaders – in fact anyone with a public platform – and as with all big questions like this, there was no clear answer.

Add to this our tendency towards self-diagnosis rather than trusting the advice of the medical profession, our tut-tutting at Punch-and-Judy politics whilst hearing only the loudest or most familiar voice/s in the argument and our smug self-righteousness over stories of ‘privilege gone wrong’ (e.g. Ryan Lochte) like we all knew better than to believe his story. It seems that society’s latest scion is cynicism.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing. The amount of information available to us across a myriad of channels, apps and devices gives us unprecedented access to facts (and a whole lot more) right at our fingertips, letting us discover as much or as little as we wish to in the moment of our ‘burning question’. And a healthy questioning of the status quo seems to do some good. But how do we really know whether the information is accurate and/or complete…and when enough information is enough?

Which leads me to my question about trust.

The Oxford Dictionary defines trust as:

Firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something

But where does this firm belief come from? It seems to be a result of our past, coming from what we have experienced before and what we think we know. But it also seems to come with conditions.

I trust different people in my life for different things – to do this or be this or provide this and they no doubt trust me for some things and not others in return. For example, I trust some people to be on time while others I ‘know’ will always be late.

I also trust repetition. I trust that I’ll get paid each month yet given there have been times in my life where this wasn’t the case, what makes me trust this now, like it’s some kind of inexorable truth? For the most part it has to do with the fact that this event has been repeating itself every month for the last five and a half years.

I think trust is conditional and of the moment. I trust certain magazines and news sources but am not surprised when fault lines appear. I do not see trust as some universal panacea to righting the world’s ills. I am a cynic – or a realist – and my trust needs to be earned over and over again.

So we assign trust and the conditions that go with it as we define and refine our relationships with the world: With our family and friends, our colleagues, the organisations we work for and deal with and our paragons of both virtue and villainy.

But I’m still left with a question of accounting. Who or what should we trust in a world that provides more data and arguably more transparency than ever before but struggles with being accountable for telling the truth?

And how on earth do we judge when enough is enough – when it’s time to stop the fact-finding and trust that it will all turn out?

But wait, there’s more

On my last visit Down Under,  Dad & B introduced Lil Chicky and I to Geocaching. It’s a bit like orienteering which I used to participate in pretty begrudgingly on school camps and throughout my Brownie years. You use a GPS-enabled smartphone instead of a compass and a physical map (you know, of the paper variety) to find something i.e. a cache. It’s like a technological treasure hunt.

It’s quite enjoyable and great for getting you active and out in the fresh air. And it’s hugely addictive: The urge to be the first in your group to find ‘it’ means that as you get closer, the casual chatting dwindles and scanning every square centimeter of your environment in the hopes of cracking the clue takes precedence. Some caches are extremely well-camouflaged and it can take a combination of an eagle eye and a willingness to get your hands dirty and rummage around in the undergrowth to uncover one.

As with any addiction, there’s always ‘just one more’. Borne on by the thrill of finding the next one, it’s really easy to end up wandering much further afield than you intended. In continuing the family geocaching legacy back in London, after an afternoon spent geocaching around Dollis Park, we had a sweaty 40 minute fast walk trot back to the flat in time for Lil Chicky’s airport pickup – we made it with about ten minutes to spare.

On a different afternoon, after a lengthy search Lil Chicky and I finally found the much-sought-after cache in a North London park…by torchlight (another of the smartphone’s many advantages). I would just like to pause here and point out that it was January in London and the sun disappears early and fast at that time of year. It also meant we found ourselves locked in said park. The good news is that after a helpful tip from a couple of passers-by, we did manage to squeeze out around one of the more loosely-chained gates and caught the bus home…because we’d walked so much further than we’d planned.

I can only imagine that Pokemon Go is a bit like this…magnified. For those who don’t know, people use their smartphones to track virtual quarry – Pokemon – located at poke stops (which can be pretty much anywhere). Since its launch on iOS this week, the news has been full of the mayhem created by hundreds converging on particular poke stops to capture rare and valuable Pokemon species. (Check out this footage from The Telegraph in Washington, USA).

You may well laugh – I did – but it appears that we are a society of hunters and collectors, always searching for something and once acquired, moving quickly on to the next thing.

This is not new: Our most popular and enduring narratives are all based on the search for something, be they myths, legends, fairy tales or real-life chronicles. History and philosophy are full of stories about the quest for territory, for power, for peace, for love, for truth – and the satisfaction of acquiring ‘it’ in the end.

So the whole Pokemon Go thing has me wondering, in a chicken-and-egg kind of way, is humankind hard-wired for dissatisfaction or is it an innate competitiveness that drives us to search for more?  Which comes first? And is survival of the fittest – fittest being defined as those who best master the tenets deemed most valuable at any given period in time – a result of nature or nurture?

What do you think?

Will we ever have enough or will we always be caught up in the search for something more?

The wall

Last September I ventured below London’s bustling surface to visit the site of a 4th century Roman bath and house. Back then the Museum of London were opening these archaeological sites as a trial to see if there as enough interest from the public in  getting up close and somewhat personal with London’s history.

There are now a whole raft of opportunities listed on the museum’s website so it would appear that the answer was yes.

Yesterday I spent an hour visiting another site from Roman London, the ruins of the fort lying underneath the busy city street of London Wall that runs outside the museum itself. I had seen this view from Bastion High Walk on previous museum visits…

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…but had never dreamed that there was any more to see. After spending an hour with Museum of London guide Mike, I was proved wrong.

Here’s what happened.

We started up on Bastion High Walk just near the museum entrance with an overview of the site. This is Mike…IMAG4093 (360x640)

…and here are a couple of pictures from our handout. The left-hand picture shows the fort at the top left within the wall surrounding the City of London. The right-hand picture is the layout of the fort itself – the area we explored is in the middle of the outside left wall.

We headed down the stairs and along the slip road to examine things more closely. I love how these old sites are tucked in between London’s more modern buildings. IMAG4096 (640x360)

Up close we could see more of the detail – the soot blackened walls, the wear on the steps from the boots of the soldiers.IMAG4097 (640x360)

Mike pointed out this line of Kentish ragstone running along the front. This is the oldest part of the structure dating from the 4th century AD.
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Can you see the two parts of the ragstone wall? The lighter-coloured part at the front would have been built first with the darker grey section added afterwards for additional fortification.

The rest of the site dates from about the 14th century when, in typical London fashion, new buildings were simply built over the top of what was already there, the previous city being abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century. I wonder what will be built on top of us?

We then headed through a non-descript door next to the London Wall car park to visit the fort remains that are kept under ‘lock and key’ by the museum. Here’s a model of what this site – the West Gate of the Roman fort – would have looked like in its ‘hey-day’.

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Mike explained that this gate was probably more administrative than military. Gates around the wall – Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldgate to name a few – aside from being defensive usually served as revenue-raisers, collecting taxes from those passing through. That this gate was un-named suggests it was less likely to support such functions.

Here are a couple of photos of the site discovered by William Grimes in 1956.

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North turret and guard room.

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The north gate

The area we visited covered only the left-hand section of model I showed previously – the guardroom and north turret, and the north gate – from the 14th century. Mike spent about 15 minutes helping us visualise the way the site would have looked, pointing out various details which archaeologists have used as the basis of their assumptions about life at the fort hundreds of years ago.

The official tour drew to a close after about 40 minutes but there was more to come. Mike mentioned that there was a piece of 4th century wall in the public car park next door that we could take a look at. I envisaged something quite small but after a brisk 10 minute walk, I was absolutely astonished to see this.

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The detail was extraordinary. You can see in the photo how the wall has been constructed for strength, stepping inwards with each row of levelling tiles (these tiles are the red lines you can see). You can also see the difference between the dressed stone on the outside and the rougher packed stone behind it.

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In London, archaeological sites are the responsibility of the land owner. Rather than being owned (and looked after) by the Museum of London, the car park is owned by the Corporation of London. It is a public space and so this historic site is at the mercy of exhaust fumes, human hands and unsympathetic modern additions.

I was really delighted to be able to see such an amazing piece of history up close (although at Mike’s request, we did not touch it – after all it is 1600 years old). But I felt irritated by its casual treatment.

A group of young skateboarders were gathered right next to it and several times I saw them lean on the wall, with some actually running into the wall itself. Granted they probably don’t understand the historical importance of this pile of stones or even if they do, appreciate it. When I think about my fascination with history, I realise that I’ve become more awestruck and humbled by it – in equal meaures – over the years. This is probably a result of my own ‘maturing’ in combination with moving to London from Australia (with its relatively shallow roots in European history) over a decade ago.

However, there was no excuse for the rubbish strewn around it by car park users and seeing the steel girder that had been inserted left me both sad and horrified.

To this end, I posted…okay, had a little rant on Instagram as I was reflecting over a post-tour coffee back at the museum. Paying for the tour itself (£5 is pretty amazing value given the expertise people like Mike provide), buying a book at the museum shop afterwards and even my new Friend membership feels like a tiny drop in an enormous ocean. Hopefully as I continue to explore what the museum offers, I will find more ways to support their work.

In the meantime, all I can think to do is to encourage you to visit these extraordinary sites – if not in London then wherever you are – to reflect on the history of humanity, how our society has evolved and perhaps consider how the story of our time might appear to the future generations.

It’s Oh So Quiet…

It’s July. The schools are starting to close for the summer break and thousands of families are packing their bags for their annual holiday. Many flee to sun themselves and swim in warmer climes although the UK’s recent burst of gloriously sunny weather may have also inspired some vacation-ing closer to home.

At this time of year, an email is circulated at work, encouraging us to be safe and take care over the months ahead. There are the usual admonishments to drive safely, to stay vigilant outside our normal routines both in and out of the work environment. This year’s message really struck a chord for me.

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”  Source: http://mariovittone.com/2010/05/154/

It would appear that drowning is not the waving, splashing, attention-getting event that we think it is. It is quiet, insidious and quick. It can happen in less than 60 seconds…while we watch.

Mario Vittone oversees the development of maritime safety and security products for VLinc Corporation and is a leading expert in drowning, sea survival and safety at sea. He consults and writes on water safety and in 2012, he published the article referred to above, painting a vivid picture of the risks we run as a result of our misconception about what drowning looks like.

In the 1970s, Dr. Francesco (Frank) Pia Ph.D discovered The Instinctive Drowning Response shown in the video below.


The misconceptions remain some 40 years later.

I grew up in a culture where swimming is taught if not in parallel with learning to walk, then at least as part of every primary school’s Phys.Ed. curriculum. And we learnt not just to swim but also to rescue and perform CPR as part of the higher swimming competency certificates in later years.

There is also a legacy of swimming in my family with my grandfather and uncle being swimming coaches and Mum swimming at State level for many years during her teens. Growing up we had pools in our various back yards and seaside holidays galore with many hours spent frolicking in the surf with Mum or Dad close by. My sister and I competed at swim meets both in and out of school and as I grew into adulthood, I spent many weekends with friends water-skiing and swimming in bays, rivers and lakes around Victoria.

Yet I carried the same misconception as many of you probably do. I never knew what drowning really looked like.

So with the Summer months gaining momentum in the northern hemisphere, it’s vital to get this message out there, to wave my virtual arms and make some noise on behalf of those who can’t.

Drowning is a quick and quiet killer and by knowing what to look for, you just never know whose life you might save.

So please share this post or any of the additional material below with as many people as you can. 

The life you save may even be yours.

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Additional material:
Drowning doesn’t look like drowning
Instinctive Drowning Response – video
Mario Vittone Facebook page
On Scene p14. – It Doesn’t Look Like They’re Drowning

Has Our Luck Run Out?

The results are in and Australia has a new Prime Minister.

Yes, another one. Our third this year.

And I cannot believe this man has been chosen by ‘the people’ to represent them.

Or has he?

When I moved to the UK almost ten years ago, I added myself to the UK’s electoral roll (as an Australian, I can do that here). There are many places in the world where having your say is not an option so I appreciate the privilege of living in a society that allows me to do this, whatever the mechanism.

At the same time, I removed myself from the Australian electoral roll, figuring that if I make my home elsewhere, it is not for me to have a say in the lives of those who still live in Australia. That is their privilege – albeit a compulsory one. But I remain staunchly Australian, carrying my native twang, laconic style and direct approach with pride and  hoping to be a good ambassador for my homeland wherever I go.

The outcome of this weekend’s election Down Under has left me stunned. I can find absolutely nothing to recommend Tony Abbott and as far as I’m concerned, he is an incredibly poor representative of the Australian people. And unusually – I move in opinionated and voluble circles – I haven’t come across anyone with a different point of view. No-one.

Pundits talk about a long election campaign (seven months) riddled with ‘reality stunts’ as opposed to committed and thoughtful politics; a circus of name-calling and sniping that perhaps voters just wanted to be done with. And given the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd tug of war within the Labor Party, perhaps people voted for the leader with a semblance of alignment behind him.

So what did happen? Is it a result of apathy or is there really something worthwhile under all of the surface nastiness and sniping? I’d be genuinely interested to hear any views that explain Abbott and the coalition’s policies, if only to understand what the future looks like over the next four years for Australia.

 

Australia continues to hold the rest of the world in its ‘lucky country’ thrall and with a pretty buoyant economy (by global standards) and four cities in the world’s top ten most liveable cities, this perception seems warranted.

But after this weekend, I’m left wondering whether our luck’s about to run out.

The Sh*t Bit…

I saw someone post on Facebook this week that people who only have happy positive status updates were not being completely honest – that sometimes life is just a bit sh*t.

After an amazing couple of weeks where I got promoted, had a birthday and generally felt lucky, humbled and a bit like I was floating on air, I’ve come down to earth with a bit of a thud.

So in the interests of having a good moan balancing the scales, here it comes.

The sh*t bit.

It all started with a second rubbish night’s sleep in a row as my back grumbled and groaned through the early hours after a pretty ‘robust’ acupuncture/ massage/ cupping session on Saturday.

A bad night’s sleep is NEVER good…and also one of the many reasons I don’t have children.

Anyway I fronted up to the train station this morning to buy my weekly travel card only to have my debit card declined. Upon further investigation, it transpired that my card had actually been cancelled by the Fraud Team (FT) at my bank…last Thursday (today is Monday). While I’m all for taking steps to ensure that some bugger doesn’t empty my funds albeit meagre from my account, a notification (like a text message or phone call which said bank seems to use at will for a myriad of other occasions) would be nice. Let me tell you, I can think of a few other words FT could stand for.

Needless to say, I held my breath as I waited for the credit card from my ‘other’ bank to clear the funds for my ticket.

I arrived at the office, looking forward to a quiet moment with my coffee to ease into the busy day ahead. I opened my email to find that the person from our Russian office who was to join us for 6 months to cover a colleague‘s maternity leave from today was refused entry into the UK and shipped back to Moscow on a flight at 8.50 this morning. Oh crap crap crap!

Then mid morning I placed a call to my local medical centre to follow up a referral from an appointment 3 weeks ago. After having to explain several times that I wasn’t chasing the results but the referral and asking for the letter to be re-faxed (as I had been asked to do by the nurse), I was given a number to call to get a name so that the fax could be addressed to a specific person for me to follow up.

On the best of days, this convoluted sort of process tests me. Today…

…and to make matters worse the number I was given didn’t connect, so I had to ring back and explain everything again. Apparently I was going to get a call back this afternoon…

Finally I left the office. I had a physiotherapy appointment booked (for said grumpy back) so I got to the station in plenty of time…and managed to get on a train that didn’t stop at my station. The lovely train station lady at St Pancras did let me get back on a train going the other way 15 minutes later (instead of fining me for not having a ‘valid ticket for travel’) and I did get home in time for a quick change of clothes before my appointment so you could argue that things were starting to turn around.

But quite frankly it was a day I could have done without.

I know that there could have been a lot of other, much worse things to deal with than my litany of inconsequential irritations. But it just didn’t feel like I could catch a break. So I figure that tomorrow’s got to be a better day…

…right?

Questioning The Benefits…

I watched a television show this week that explored the benefits system here in the UK which pitted public opinion against the benefits culture.

I’ve never been on benefits although I have been in the position of scrimping to pay my bills and feed myself as the result of my job being made redundant at the end of 2008 followed by the a**e falling out of the job market in 2009. So as everything from the weekly grocery shop to the job hunting behaviour was scrutinised, I did have some sympathy. But I was definitely on the side of the tax payer who was stunned to see how cavalier other people were being with ‘my money’.

One of the people receiving benefits was a young guy on the dole who had graduated from University with his degree. He received a visit from a tax-paying nurse who works long hours to earn the money she needs to get by. She asked some pretty tough questions and pointed out to him that his situation in having a supportive family – living rent-free with an aunt and uncle who also co-fund things like his iPhone bill – surely meant that he should be working to contribute, albeit at something that might not reflect his degree qualification.

Granted, this guy only received something in the order of £3,600 per year and was doing some volunteer work at the local Youth Centre but in doing the job-hunting rounds of the retailers in the town centre, there was very little enthusiasm demonstrated around find a job to pay his way, let alone fund his hi-tech paraphernalia or brand-name shoes. He’d worked his way through Uni and he felt he should wait for a career job.

I remember leaving Uni in 1991, a rare (for then) duo of degrees in hand, expecting that my choice to double the workload and fees over my four years of study would yield the kind of career prospects I’d been promised when I had first enrolled. I had worked to pay my way throughout and also had a mountain of debt to pay back at the end.

As I sent off applications, phoned recruitment officers and generally chased as many opportunities as possible, time after time I was met with ‘you’re over qualified and under-experienced’, something I found – and still find – to be a ridiculously circular argument. (How can a graduate with any promise get the essential experience for an ‘entry level’ position in their chosen career?) So after leaving my put-myself-through-Uni job, I worked as receptionist, then moved to a sales admin role with a sales brokerage firm six months later and worked my way into my marketing career from there. Life being what it is, I have found myself back ‘at Reception’ several times, temping to make ends meet after moving to London. But that’s a whole other story.

It’s been demoralising each time and there was many a time I thought to myself, what am I doing and how did I get here after all that hard work? But I always wanted to earn rather than receive the handout. Quite frankly, it also kept me sane: to be learning about a new business and meeting new people rather than dwelling on the situation I was in.

There’s a big part of me that can ‘see’ the logic in waiting and taking what one can get. And I understand the disappointment of feeling that years of hard work to get a qualification is being overlooked or even dismissed. But I am pretty put out that my taxes are paying for his gadgets. I’ve blogged about ‘entitlement’ before so I won’t get on my soapbox (for now anyway) – maybe the fault also lies in a system that is ill-equipped to validate need versus ease.

What do you think? Is there anywhere that has gotten this right?