Sunday 30 December 2007

Quiet Days

It is the quiet time of year. Those days between Christmas and New Year when you can kick back and relax, and prepare for the drab and dull month that is January.

Christmas Day went the way that it usually does. I was woken at the crack of dawn by my other half (who is a big kid when it comes to Christmas). I'm not exaggerating the early hour... 6am. So we did the present thing... which occasioned wrapping paper everywhere. Even the cat was not forgotten, although generally she is more interested in balled up pieces of wrapping paper than the actual gifts she gets!

The highlight of the day (apart from the presents) was lunch, of which, as always there was far too much. Nobody really seems to cater for two person households when it comes to food... which I find bizarre as there are plenty of us out there! Somehow in amongst all this I still managed to fit in two naps! There is always time to sleep!

The next couple of days were spent very quietly. Eating, drinking and so forth. We were off to see my folks on Friday. This in itself proved to be an unexpected debacle! The car hasn't been feeling that wanted the last few months. The whole time I wasn't well I didn't drive at all. The first occasion that I decided to take the car out once I was better it was discovered that the battery was flat. This little episode drove from my mind the reports I had read about possible fuel protests (as there were back in 2000). I had meant to fill the car up with fuel at that time and never got around to it. So, Friday morning we are off to my parents (who live around 40 miles away) and there is no petrol in the car. We go to the BP garage on the Woolwich Road. As we pull in the first pumps we see all have their unleaded pumps out of action. In fact it turns out that all the unleaded pumps are out of action. Next stop Sainsbury's on the Peninsula. As we draw in we notice signs up stating that there is no unleaded. Oh dear. Next stop Asda. Same story no unleaded. My imagination is beginning to run out - most local Petrol stations have shut down and been turned into blocks of flats. We slip onto the A2 and run up to the Sun-in-Sands where I irritate all the traffic by suddenly turning left as I remember that there is a petrol station just near the eponymous pub. Hurrah. They have unleaded... at the frankly horrifying price of over a pound per litre. Argh! So I fill the tank and we make it down to Kent (where the petrol is even more astronomical prices).

It is soon going to be extremely uneconomic to run a car (especially an older car). What with road tax (which I'm sure the Government will soon be raising) and MOTs and insurance and petrol. Using an Oystercard to get the bus has never been a better idea!

Monday 24 December 2007

'Tis the Season?! (Part 2)

The other thing that always happens around this time of year is an influx of gadgets into our lives. This house particularly, and this year is no exception.

Gadget no. 1 - the new iPod.
I've always been one for music on the move. Ever since my first Walkman, through several incarnations to the portable CD player (so not portable) to my first MP3 player. The first MP3 player was a disaster. Chunky to the size of a Walkman, irritating volume limiters that wouldn't switch off... I hardly used it for the year that I had it. Then I got my first iPod. I think it was a nano... small and pink. We had an excellent relationship until the battery fritzed about 8 months ago. Thereafter it was virtually impossible to use. Charge to full power, switch on to play music and up came the message "no battery power remains, please connect to power". ARGH! It got to the point I couldn't use it. So gathering together Christmas money I decided to upgrade to the latest iPod. 80 glorious gigabytes (of which I've used a very small percentage so far). Plus a colour screen. If I was so inclined I could watch TV and videos on it. And it came in a nice bundle with a beautiful flat panel speaker. The only annoying thing was that it appears to be one of this Chrismas's must have gifts... and all the shops I wanted to reserve and buy from were sold out. Eventually I found one available in the City at PC World. I was dubious having reserved from PC World before and seen them go to the shelf to fetch my 'reserved' product. However, whether because it was Christmas or it is a new policy... all the reservations had been put aside!

Gadget No. 2 - the V-plus box.
Ever since I first heard about TiVo I've been hankering for a box that watches TV for you. A flurry of advertising from Virgin Media about the reduced installation for their V+ decided me that it might be a nice Christmas present for ourselves. I rang up... paid £75 (half price installation) and arranged a date for them to come and install the box. The date duly arrived... and the engineer phoned. Could he come in the morning instead of the afternoon as arranged? Sure we said. An hour passed. The engineer phoned again. There had been some sort of confusion and the installation hadn't been booked properly. He wasn't sure if he could come at all, but he was going to check and call us back. We waited an couple of hours. Nothing. So we called Virgin Media ourselves. Oh dear. The guy who took my payment hadn't booked the installation, so it couldn't be done today. In fact, not until 5th January (!?!). Fine. Time passed. The phone rang again. The engineer. He'd be there in 5 minutes. So the box came and was installed and the old box was left behind... oops, without a power cable. We found a power cable and the old box took up residence in the bedroom, and the V+ box delighted us with its amazing abilities. Then a couple of days later a courier arrived... with a shiny Virgin branded box. A new 'V box' (just your regular cable box). Smaller than the old one, shiny and silver (to match the TV, video and DVD player upstairs - cool). Two gadgets for the price of one.

A word on V+ (or similar approved systems). It rocks! The ease of use (even for somebody like me who can barely operate a video player) is superb. The picture quality (even without an HD TV) is amazing. The ability to watch heaps of rubbish TV you might otherwise miss... priceless!

Sunday 23 December 2007

'Tis the Season?!

Every year I make myself the same promise. Here is the promise I make myself - I will have nothing further to do with the whole shopping experience once we pass the 20th December. Every year for one reason or another I break this promise to myself. This year I was fully prepared to have nothing at all to do with the shops whatsoever in the last two weeks before Christmas. What with internet shopping and all, and the joy that is buying groceries online. Sadly my plan fell short. I left it too late to book the delivery slot for grocery shopping (nothing available until 27th December... so it was fine for the following weeks shopping!). So... my nearly-mother-in-law and I decided we were to brave Asda for our Christmas food. In the end we decided to go late in the evening on Wednesday. The whole experience wasn't too terrible - apart from the irritation that our visit appeared to coincide with the supermarket starting their shelf stacking, which meant that most shelves were blocked by enormous trolley which had to be circumnavigated in order to reach any products! I also dropped by Sainsbury's to spend my Nectar points (note: these are loyalty points which you collect at the till every time you shop in the store or at selected online partners). This year I had managed to accrue £35 worth which bought the festive season alcohol collection!

Even worse than having to go food shopping was the fact that I managed to forget to buy some items. This necessitated a trip out on Saturday morning. Sheer madness. I have come to the conclusion that there should be 'peak' periods during the year during which you require a special licence to drive a car (or any vehicle). Some of the bad behaviour on the roads was beyond belief... overtaking and undertaking at inappropriate moments... getting cut up all over the place, double parking in the car parks. Lunacy. My brief trip to Asda (twice in a week!) was only improved by the fact that everyone was shopping for huge amounts and the 'basket only' queue was virtually deserted. Seriously. The supermarket is closed for ONE day... it is open again on 26th... not like when I was a kid and they did close for the best part of a week. One day!

Despite all of this I still decided to go out again this morning. On the bus this time. Because I went early it seemed everyone else was still in bed (or maybe gone to work). Not at all a bad trip... I visited about five stores and was still home within the hour. At lunchtime I walked to the Village to go to the Chippy. On my way I saw buses headed towards Woolwich... and in the forty minutes it took me to get there and back I saw five 486s... three 422s... two 54s... and only one 53. Remarkable only because the 53 is supposed to be the most frequent of all the routes. Go figure!

So. Here we are all ready for Christmas. Presents are wrapped... the house is tidy, and the lights are increasing our carbon footprint exponentially!!! Beautiful. Our living room is delightfully like Santa's Grotto (just how it should be).

Monday 17 December 2007

7 shopping days 'til Christmas...

It used to mean more, counting shopping days until Christmas. Now that the shops are open all the time (especially on Sundays) all the days until Christmas are shopping days!

So. Much has been going on for me since last I had time to sit and take stock... not least a great deal of Christmas festivities.

Last week I met up with some friends with whom I used to work. We get together every six months or so and remember 'the good old days'. On this occasion we were to meet in the Old Mitre which is somewhere near Hatton Gardens. This is a delightful, if very small establishment. There are three small areas inside, and the assembled crowds tend to spill into the alleyway and anywhere else they can fit! I arrived late. I knew I'd be late anyway as I'd come from home and not the office, but I then had to deal with London Underground (sigh) which delayed me even further! My entire travel experience had started badly when I arrived at North Greenwich to find Carol Singers in the ticket hall. I have no objection to Carol Singers... but only if they are doing a good job. I was unimpressed with the quality of this lot, and even less impressed that they seemed to want paying!

Finally arriving at the Mitre I couldn't find my friends ANYWHERE. I checked the two downstairs bars and took my life in my hands to check the upstairs bar (very steep stairs!). Eventually I sent a text message, and received the reply that they were 'past the gents'. This took alleyways to a new meaning! However, once having found them an excellent evening was had by all. By the time I got back to North Greenwich it was late enough to justify a cab home. The amount of cabs available at North Greenwich has been extremely adversely affected by the advent of events at the O2. There was a big queue and a lot of offers of cab sharing going on. Lucky for me there was a lady from the next street down to mine - so not only did I get a cab faster, but when I offered to split the fare it turned out hers was on expenses, so a free cab ride too! 'Tis the season!

Talking of festive music making (which I was briefly) , don't think that I am a miserable scrooge type. I love Christmas, and I love the spirit of Christmas (peace on earth, goodwill to all men). However. If I am expected to be parting with my money (even if it is for charitable purposes) I expect the people who I are trying to part me from it to make just a modicum of effort. Take my shopping trip to Bexleyheath the previous weekend. The Salvation Army were out with their brass band playing carols and rattling buckets. I had no hesitation in giving them my change - they had obviously been practising and were pretty good. Further down the street was a colourful bus with a stereo outside blaring out Christmas CDs. I did not give them any money. I could have walked into anyone of a dozen shops and had the same racket for free!

On the not so festive front I decided to take my car out last week. This was to be the first time since I hadn't been well, as I was finally feeling the my legs and balance were up to it. The car however had different ideas. I turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened (well, some coughing and whining, but nothing significant). So. I had to call the AA out. It turned out that the battery was done. Excellent. Just the time to be spending £60 on a new battery!!!

Friday was the office Christmas party. As the balance of staff are in Scotland we fly up there every year. Some of my colleagues stay over, but I like to come back the same day. City Airport in the morning was mental. I met two of my colleagues who were on an earlier flight in the departure lounge as they had been delayed. Should have taken this as the bad omen that it clearly was. The flight was late boarding, and when I finally did board we just sat on the runway for ages (and ages). If it had been some more accessible type of transport I'd have gotten off and made alternate arrangements! The most fun bit of the the whole flight up was probably for my walking stick which had to go through the baggage scanner before it could come back and take me through the metal detector!

Lunch was excellent (as ever) and large (probably too large) amounts of alcohol were consumed. The cab ride back to the airport was easy as the company fortunately has a taxi account (I think we should get one of those in London). I was unconvinced by the flying back though. As regular readers will know I am not a happy flier. In fact, I hate flying. Usually I will get tranquillisers to calm the panic, but I hadn't got around to it - and figured I could probably last the one hour flight. I always forget how much flying terrifys me! The plane I was getting back was small (for some reason I don't trust small planes). The smallest I've ever been on. So small that it didn't need steps wheeling up to it as the steps were integral to the door which folded down. It seated 32 to people. A single row up one side of the aisle and double seats down the other. No food as the plane was too small for a galley it would seem. Excellent bar service though. The steward should get a customer service award. He was the only crew (apart, obviously from whoever was flying the plane), but nothing was too much trouble for him. He served drinks to everyone and took his time... he helped people with luggage seats etc. and was generally charming and polite. Full marks to the cabin crew.

All this exertion left me pretty exhausted for the weekend. This was fine as most of the activity of the weekend involved sitting in front of the TV watching a variety of sporting events. 1) Charlton losing to West Brom on Saturday (oh dear!) 2) half of Callie playing Celtic (I fell asleep) at which point Callie won (hurrah!) and some American Football... the match I saw was Cleveland hosting Buffalo in several inches of snow. Not much fun to watch really... couldn't see the pitch, couldn't see much of the players. Apparently the only thing that stops the NFL is lightning. I think they should build more stadiums in domes then! The game I would have like to have watched was the Jags beating Pittsburgh... other notable events - well Miami finally got their first win of the season, ensuring that they did not suffer the ignominy of going 0-16. Personally I thought it would show a rather nice sense of synchronisity coming 25 years (or however long) after their Perfect Season when they went 16-0. Ah well. It was bound to happen. At one point I also though that the Jets were going to beat the Colts... however they didn't quite manage that. I didn't manage to stay awake for the late game - the Giants (my favourite team) playing the Redskins (Rich's favourite team). Good thing too, the Giants lost.

I was quite early leaving for work this morning. Lots to do, could do with the extra time. Ha! Hadn't bargained with the Jubilee Line. Bearing in mind that I'd been watching the news before I left home - and the only reported problem on the Underground was the Central Line. So, I wasn't prepared for the chaos at North Greenwich. Sever delays on the Jubilee Line due to a failed train at Baker Street. The crowds on Platform 1 (westbound) were six deep. So I waited, and waited and waited. I thought to get the train from Platform 2 (occasional westbound). Good plan. When it eventually left some 20 minutes later. We stopped and started our way up towards central London until we got to Waterloo. There the driver suddenly was informed that the train was being taken out of service and going back East! Whatever. No way I was joining a trains-worth of people to try and squeeze onto another already full train. I decided to get the Bakerloo line. Couldn't remember the stops, but knew that eventually it got to Baker Street which is just a bit further north from my office. I forgot what a hike it was to change from the Jubilee line at Waterloo (it involves travelators if that gives you an idea). So I got the Bakerloo line to Piccadilly Circus and the Piccadilly line to Green Park. 1hr 40minutes journey time. Bah!

So. Just this week left until the Christmas break. It's mental here (of course). Christmas has been on the way for the whole year, but still everyone seems very surprised to find it just a week away. Both the partners are now out of the office (which happens every year) and heaps of 'urgent' estimates have suddenly turned up which need to be completed this week (which also happens every year). Oh well, it really makes you appreciate the holiday when it comes!

Thursday 6 December 2007

Inland Revenue

Yesterday I received a dreaded brown envelope from the Inland Revenue... oops I mean HM Revenue and Customs as they go by these days. In my experience letters of this nature have never been good.

In the past it has always been a case of miscalculation of my income tax contributions - which date back to several years previously, but will now be collected by adjustment of my personal allowance. I would dearly love to be able to explain all this mumbo-jumbo for overseas readers... however, I have never really understood it myself. I always spend hours poring over the booklets and then end up asking Rich or one of my colleagues to explain it anyway! It's always worth checking though. The time before yesterday when they were adjusting a previous miscalculation it was the same miscalculation that they had recouped the previous year. Personally I think that if more than a year has passed before they get around to checking these things it should all be water under the bridge!

Anyway. Back to yesterdays missive. It wasn't Income Tax on their minds this time but National Insurance contributions. According to them for the year 2005-06 (yes, that's right, nearly two years ago) my contributions fell short to have it considered as a 'qualifying year' by... wait for it... 52 weeks. No build up (which always arrives with such tax letters) just a note that I needed to pay them £382 by... wait for it... 2012. I couldn't even be bothered to begin to understand this, so I just called the telephone number with my P60 for that year ready to hand (oh, I am so organised).

After giving all the details they could think of to ask for to verify that I am in fact me we got down to business. How could I owe 52 weeks I asked, that is an entire year? Was I in full time employment that year, they asked? Can't they tell, having presumably looked me up on some computer! Yes, I confirmed. Oh... they said, they were still in the process of updating their accounts for that year (yes, nearly two years ago) so the letter had been automatically generated. They would contact me again when they had finished updating their accounts. All well and good. Although, what if I had been an older person... what if I had been about to retire... what if the letter told me I only had 29 of the 30 years of qualifying years that I need to claim my state pension. Would I have rushed out the next day and paid the money, trusting that a Government department must know what they are doing. Maybe? Although after some recent news stories concerning various government departments, maybe not.

Monday 3 December 2007

Transport troubles and cold weather

It seems that winter is most definitely here. The weather has been either absolutely freezing, or as an alternative, bucketing down with rain.The later has engendered leaking roofs and small inundations; the former has necessitated me finally buying a winter coat (£60 in Evans, wool blend, what a snip!).

I've been busy doing battle with TfL, pretty much everytime I go out of the house. Take last Tuesday. I arrived at North Greenwich Underground station to discover that the bus lane (and station) were closed (again). I couldn't see any activity at all and it was all rather irritating as it is a bit of a hike (with a walking stick) up the steps from the temporary stops. In the evening the bus lane was still closed, and by now the station announcer was informing passengers that the bus lane was closed for repairs (I did see two men digging a small hole on my way past) and would be open again at 4pm on Thursday. Down at the temporary stops (which are actually permanent but not usually used by all routes) chaos reigned. Although the three stops were designated for various routes this fact was being roundly ignored by all the drivers, who were pretty much stopping wherever they pleased - causing chaos for those of us trying to board! It was cold standing around waiting but it did afford some beautiful views of the Dome and Canary Wharf by night!

This morning was the pinnacle of rubbish transport. There had clearly been some incident affecting the north bound traffic through the Blackwall Tunnel. Sadly I didn't notice this as we crossed by the Standard, but I noticed as we passed Westcombe Park, and took several minutes to round the Woolwich Road flyover. I decided not to get off at the old hospital, but to stay round the corner and see what Tunnel Avenue (or whatever it is called) looked like. Stationary. Oh dear. At this point I did get off the bus and decided to head on a 188 to Canada Water where I could again pick up the Jubilee Line. I'm not sure that all that messing about ultimately saved any time - but at least I felt like I was getting somewhere!

I took a trip the other week to the newly re-opened Sainsbury's on the the Peninsula. Already one of my favourite supermarkets the refurbishment has only improved matters. They fortunately haven't made the wide aisles any narrower, and they have moved around some of the shelves so that the units face the same way - there is better traffic flow around the vegetables and the annoying dead end in frozen food has been done away with. All good.

On the subject of shopping I took a trip to Woolwich at the weekend. This is not something I do very often as the depth of shopping available there doesn't usually suit my needs. As usual a great deal of shops had opened and closed since my previous visit. Still the same healthy mix of bargain shops, estate agents and mobile phone shops. The whole area was frantically busy as though the 1st December had kick-started everyone into a Christmas shopping frenzy!

Saturday night I took a trip to Greenwich to catch up with some friends. This took two bus journeys as there is no direct route from where I live to central Greenwich. I felt extremely old as the bus was full of youngsters who were sporting short skirts, skimpy tops and no coats (and it was REALLY cold on Saturday night). From where I was sitting they didn't look old enough to drink - but like I said, I guess I'm just getting older! We went to the pub called Gipsy Moth (which is confusingly located adjacent to the actual Cutty Sark). It wasn't too crowded for a Saturday night and has the advantage of being easily located in central Greenwich. I got to enjoy the Christmas illuminations in Greenwich which are tastefully understated, as you would expect.