Monday, 15 December 2008

Monday 15 December

They say that crime is going down. Based on recent evidence, I strongly doubt those statistics. Maybe it is “reported” crime that is going down; anyone who has ever had to report a crime to their local police will testify that you nearly give up the will to live whilst you wait on the phone to get through to someone, or queue for hours at a Police Station surrounded by various misfits, victims, and criminals.

A few nights ago, I was an audio witness to a vicious attack. I was chatting on the phone to one of my best friends as he walked home from Stratford Station after a long day of hard work, where he’d put in a 14-hour day. We were laughing and joking about nothing much in particular when I suddenly heard a commotion and a scuffle. A strange voice in the background said: “Hand it over” and then the phone went dead. I tried calling back but it went straight to voicemail. I then phoned the Police on 999 and explained what had happened. The only location for my friend’s whereabouts that I could give was somewhere between Stratford Station and my friend’s address. They took my number and said they would call back with any news.

Minutes ticked by and I became more and more anxious. Fearing the worst, my head filled with bizarre thoughts about hospitals, having to pretend to be a close relative, contacting family, and even the awfulness of having to identify a body. Just before midnight the phone rang; it was the police who had my friend in the police car with them. It turned out that he was safe and well - if a bit shaken up.

A few hundred metres from his front door a man had suddenly come up behind him, held a knife to his throat and demanded that he hand over his phone, all his cash and for some reason, his keys. Not surprisingly, my friend obeyed the instructions. Although he’s young and fit, you don’t argue when a knife is being held to your throat! The thief then did a runner. Two minutes later the police arrived by car and asked my friend if he was the one who had been attacked. As the attacker had come from behind and had remained behind at all times, it was not even possible to give a description. All the Police could do was take a short statement, issue a crime number, and then get my friend back to the station so he could catch the late tube to Waterloo to collect the spare set of keys to his flat that I had.

At about 1am my poor friend turned up at my flat looking very miserable. We went through the process of reporting the phone stolen and getting it blocked. My poor friend then had to head out into the night again to take the night bus home. He needed a change of clothing as he had an important meeting to attend at 9am. Seemingly, there’s no chance for a rest or flagging if you’re a young entrepreneur with a growing business to run!

The following morning I acted as secretary contacting the insurance people and phone company. I have to say that apart from the irritation of having to call an 0845 number, T-Mobile turned up trumps as a replacement phone and SIM card arrived by lunchtime the following day. My friend was soon back in action - apart from the inconvenience of having lost his entire address book - which he had lovingly recreated after his previous phone was stolen some months before from his locker at the gym he attended. So, the moral of this story is to always back-up your mobile phone address book!

The thief got away with £30, and a mobile phone that was blocked within an hour of the incident with the handset rendered useless by its IMEU number being blacklisted. But the thief’s actions caused massive emotional trauma - both to my friend and myself - excess charges on the insurance premium for the phone and replacement SIM card, as well as the cost of having the locks replaced at his home. A stupid, senseless crime - probably to fuel a drug habit - caused massive inconvenience and stress.

It’s at times like this that even liberal-minded people like myself think that there is something very wrong with society, that people should be able to safely walk the streets of our capital city at any time of day or night, and that the criminal justice system needs to be a little more punitive, and a little less forgiving!

Monday, 8 December 2008

Monday 8 December

It’s been a very chilly few days recently in London with icy winds and low temperatures. And because things never happen at opportune times, it was last Wednesday that my neighbours noticed a smell of gas and called out the gas board to check. So on Wednesday evening, I arrived home to find much of the pavement outside my street front door dug up, a team of British Gas workmen digging more holes, and the gas cut off! On Thursday morning they came and turned off the supply in my flat for safety reasons, gave me a telephone number where I could ask for a temporary electric hotplate to cook on, and cheerfully said that it could be some days before the gas supply could be restored!

That night a friend of mine who had just arrived in the UK from Saudi Arabia came round to see me. Having been used to nighttime temperatures in the mid 20s, he found London distinctly cold and my flat like a fridge. He’d intended staying with me for a couple of days but stayed for an only hour before apologising and finding some other friends to stay with!

I managed to lay my hands on an electric radiator and a fan heater the following day. While these improved things no end, I could almost feel the electricity bill notching up every time I turned the fan heater on. Fortunately, on Sunday the workmen returned and announced with pride that they had isolated the leak and that it was safe to turn the gas back on. Never has that reassuring whoosh of the boiler coming on been such a sweet sound and the ease of turning on the hot water tap and hot, rather than tepid, water coming out of it been so welcome!

It’s that time of year when Elizabeth Finn Care beneficiaries receive their Christmas Hampers. After a couple of abortive attempts at delivery whilst I was out, my hamper arrived. As always, there is the excitement of opening the box and digging around in the sea of white polystyrene packing shapes to discover what goodies are lurking deep down inside. The cold weather gives it an extra frissant, and of course there is always the pleasure that getting anything brings.

My delving into the polystyrene-filled box reveals the normal eccentric mix of the really useful, the odd treat, and a selection of the bizarre and useless! The spirit of Marie-Antoinette and Paddington Bear seems to permeate the selection as cake and marmalade and jam seem to dominate. There’s some cheese and dates, a Christmas pudding, mince pies, chocolates and a bottle of wine … but what will I do with a tin of whole red peppers and the royal game soup? Or the pickles and the chutney, and the redcurrant jelly? As I ruminate over these questions whilst contemplating the After Eight cloned chocolates and the chocolate nuts packaged to look like just Brazils, I ponder how difficult it must be to please all those people who receive hampers!

Earlier in the week, I find myself being whisked off to Bedford for a meeting to try and make the Elizabeth Finn Care name better known in Bedfordshire. There’s an illustrious selection of guests from the voluntary sector there - including the High Sheriff - when it comes to talking to the group about how things went wrong for me, I find myself unusually moved by my own story and how I ended up needing help. Several times I find myself becoming tearful and emotional, however, I am reassured to get a sympathetic round of applause. I am told later that I genuinely moved some of the audience … so even the saddest of tales can produce positive results.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Monday 1 December

I wrote recently about the outcry around the Baby P case. It was good to hear this week that the people at the top of the London Borough of Haringay are to lose their jobs. However, the news reports have also included material about some of the more mawkish British behavior: families making pilgrimages to Islington Crematorium to leave floral tributes, teddy-bears, toys, and other tributes along with messages of a sentimentality that is both gushing and embarrassing. There does seem to be some peculiar trait that comes through at times like this - just as it did with the death of Princess Diana - that some parts of the population feel almost obliged to take on a mantle of collective mourning for those who they never knew and that somehow a bunch of flowers from the corner shop, or a similar object, will cleanse and salve the national conscience. It was bad enough with Diana, let alone the repeated behavior that has been marked when children have died in tragic circumstances … let us all hope that this trend starts to reverse rather than grow, as I for one am left feeling a bit cold about the whole thing.

On a different subject, one of the most irritating things in many shops is their obsession with moving things around; changing the long-established locations of certain items and discontinuing what you thought were popular lines on, seemingly, a peculiar whim all of their own! At one time, Marks and Spencer were the supreme culprits at this. Now, other retailers seem to be muscling in on the act with equal relish.

Wearing a marketing hat, I can understand some of the logic surrounding this, as obviously the shops want to let customers see new lines and discover products that they might not have tried before. But, of course, they risk the ire of customers who simply want to pop in quickly and get the item that always lives on a particular shelf! It is bad enough when you can see – imagine how much more difficult it is for people, like me, who cannot see very much!

As it’s coming up to Christmas, all the supermarkets are gradually making spaces on their shelves for special Christmas stock. Life is becoming increasingly difficult as I search for familiar items in vain only to find that they have been moved to somewhere obscure, or worse still, temporarily gone out of stock to make way for mountains of mince pies, jumbo packs of chocolates and biscuits, and all the other seasonal lines that seem to clog up the supermarket aisles in the countdown to the festive period. Retailers seem to believe that we all want to gorge ourselves on a highly calorific diet throughout December rather than just have those treats as treats! I remember a few years ago, some of the Virgin stores declared themselves to be Christmas-free zones … it was wonderful!

My local branch of Sainsbury’s - being a small one - uses the Post Office style of queuing, with recorded announcements for “cashier number one, please” and so on. This, of course, is a boon if you cannot see where the gaps are. I find myself waging a bit of a battle with unthinking staff that forget to use the announcements and just wave at the queue - or unhelpfully call out: “Next please!”

I tend not to use my white stick unless I’m in crowded places. I find that waving it around seems to increase staff comprehension about why the announcements about which cashier to go to make such a difference to me - as does their telling me when to put my PIN number into the machine. Otherwise, I stand there - finger poised - until they realise that they might need to give me a bit of assistance!
Progress indeed!