Very nearly twelve years ago I cleared my desk and left my employment with Texaco for the third and final time. In my decade of service with them, I managed to leave three times. I was a serial quitter at. The first occasion was to try my hand at a different kind of service altogether, as an air traffic controller with the RAF. The Continue reading “Wishful Thinking”
Once upon a time, large sail ships in the waters around Britain were not an uncommon sight. To say the least. Some contained sugar, spice and all things nice. Others contained cannons and gunpowder. Some contained black folk from Africa, on their way across the Atlantic. All of them were vital ingredients in the growth of the British Empire. I probably don’t need to explain the controversial aspects of this to you. Continue reading “The Tall Ship”
Kids television in the 70s and 80s was a mixed bag of shows, ranging from the iconic to the utterly diabolical. It probably still is, but I haven’t been paying much attention for the last few decades. I had a few favourite shows back in my childhood. Grange Hill, the Magic Roundabout, Rent a ghost, and, of course, Paddington. Any child that doesn’t like Paddington should probably have a careful eye kept on them. They’re weird. But perhaps Continue reading “Disruption”
I’ve been on a few scenic railway journeys in my life. I have done one of the greatest train journeys of them all in fact. Back in 2003 I boarded El Chepe at Los Mochis. The very name Los Mochis sounds like some sort of sizzling hell hole from a Star Wars movie, inhabited by bandits and home to all sorts of illegal trades and generally skullduggery. And, quite frankly, it is as bad it sounds, or at least my experience of it was. The train ride to Creel, though, was magnificent. I’ve written about this before, more than once.
In a couple of months I have another great railway journey lined up. It’s a very special trip on a special train that will travel along tracks through countryside that has been made famous in all sorts of movies. It’s often voted as the greatest railway journey in the world. I’ll have to wait and see if there is any truth to that. Hopefully there will be more fabulous railway trips over the coming years. One of the big benefits of my job are the travel benefits afforded not only to myself, but Mrs P too. We get free use on the network I work for, and a 75% discount on the rest of the national network. In August, once I’ve completed a full year of service, those benefits will extend across Europe.
I’ve always liked rail journeys. Even other people’s rail journeys. There’s a programme I watch regularly that reminds me of life in Mexico City. Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys. He used his early 20th century Bradshaws guide to tour the UK on the train. I spent many hours on the metro or in cafes watching his television series. And now I can recreate them for myself. He’s also done a series on European travel. But now he is back with yet another series. If you haven’t yet guessed where, then you didn’t read the title of this post very carefully. Perhaps you’d like to join him on his trip? Someone has kindly, and probably rather illegally, uploaded the series onto YouTube. Enjoy it while it lasts.
The technology might be centuries old. The engines might be hopelessly outdated and unreliable. But there are still plenty of steam powered trains in the UK. Dozens of heritage railways keep the old chuggers chugging. And plenty of people are still enthralled at the concept of burning coal in a boiler to produce sufficient power to propel a lump of metal down a track. Enthralled enough to come out in their dozens to watch one come by.
A steam train came through my station the other day. The photo below may deceive you. Or it may not, depending on your powers of observation. It’s going backwards, not forwards. It had broken down earlier. The paying passengers had to endure the ignominy of being towed by a more modern diesel locomotive, which is out of shot. It didn’t matter to the train spotters though. Of which, it seems, I am now one. Oh, the shame…
Mexico City was not awash with flash cars when I was there. Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bugattis aren’t the status symbol in DF that they are elsewhere in the world. They’re a ‘come and get me‘ sign to the more dastardly sections of the community. In London, owning a pricey motor is unlikely to get you kidnapped. The worst that might happen is that some jealous passer-by might rake his keys along the flank of the beast, scarring its expensive paint job.
What to do? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it. Do away with the paint. Carpet your coupé instead. As well as preventing the hoi polloi from gouging the car there are a plethora of other benefits. Worried about parking under the Walkie Talkie Tower? That’s no problem now. On hot days you won’t even burn yourself when opening the door. Fancy a picnic? Get yourself comfy on that spacious bonnet. Has Jeeves got the weekend off, and you really need the car as clean as a whistle, but….well, washing with a hose and bucket is just so messy? And just so not you, sir? Fear not. Fetch the hoover.
But let’s come back down to earth. What this carefully coiffured Rolls Royce really tells us is that if you have the money, then every dream, no matter how fanciful or whimsical, can be turned into reality. And that no amount of money can buy good taste.
The London taxi, properly known as a Hackney Carriage, is the best in the world. Really. It has no rival. Is this news surprising? It is news. Not my opinion. From comments I’ve read around the world, it appears so. Which I found surprising. Unlike most taxis around the world, the Hackney Carriage is a purpose built vehicle. Unlike most cities around the world, the drivers know every nook and cranny of the city they serve. Their training course, the Knowledge, is thorough. The charges come from a regulated meter, and aren’t too outrageous. And the cars are comfortable.
I tip my invisible hat to ye, Hackney Carriage drivers of London. Never was a taxi so easy to get into and out of, nor swallow so many bags, nor sit so many people comfortably. It also looks fantastic. Along with soldiers wearing bearskin hats, red post and phone boxes, double decker buses and Big Ben, the Hackney Carriage is an instantly recognised London icon.
Where did Mexico come? Tied fifth, a great result. I don’t know whether to be surprised at this result or not. Taxis in Mexico City have the worst reputation ever! And yet, providing you’re not going too far (it’s a big city, and I’ve been in more than one taxi where the driver got lost on a south to north jaunt) then it’s cheap, cheerful and there’s a plentiful supply of taxis to choose from. You do need a choice though. Some times the ‘meter isn’t working’. Which is taxilingo for ‘it’s a gringo, he’s got the cash, why not milk him of as much of it as possible’. Which didn’t work on me. It shouldn’t work on anyone….just take the next damned taxi that will come along in about…oh, say about fifteen seconds?
Normally I refrain from profanity. I’ll make an exception today – I’m pretty sure my audience is 100% adult. And I’ll offer a confession while I’m at it. My name is Gary, and I’m a bus wanker. I have been since I sold my motorbike last June in (ahem…) preparation for the move to Mexico. The local bus company runs a pretty extensive network and if you get their credit card type Key cards for about £60 a month, you get unlimited travel on the whole network. So I swapped my bike for a bus.
I got myself a Key card and topped up with a three month pass and off I went. Generally the service is ok. The buses are new and comfortable and they run regularly enough. But I have had complaints before now. The drivers can be such a miserable, and sometimes outright rude, bunch of so and so’s. There are some good ones, but too many feel they are doing you a favour when they let you on. A smile and greeting isn’t something they excel at. There are other cons to travelling with Wilts and Dorset. The buses don’t always bother stopping for a start. And their customer service department is…well, not very good at customer service. It’s 50/50 if they’ll even respond to your email.
But this last week I have fallen foul of the most appalling levels of customer service. Where do we even start? The story begins just over a week ago. I finished work at 5pm and headed out the front door of the office. A double decker bus was pulling up at the bus stop. Only one double decker stops there – my bus, the X3. I ran and jumped on it, swiping my card. I was expecting Mrs P to be on the bus. She wasn’t. I looked around, and saw another double decker go past and stop in front. That was my bus. What the hell sort of a bus had I got on? It turned out that I’d got on the X2. They are being temporarily diverted past my office.
I jumped off the wrong bus and made it to the right bus, just in time. I swiped on. But the light turned red, not green. The driver told me my card had been hotlisted and he was retaining it. Further, as I had no cash on me to pay for a ticket, I had to get off. In true Wilts and Dorset style, he couldn’t have been more unhelpful and miserable. Mrs P was on this bus, but she got off with me. I drew cash out of a nearby ATM, waited for the next bus and bought a one week pass.
So I got in touch with Wilts and Dorset by email, to ask why my card had been retained and what would they do about it. They replied, just one day later – miracles do happen! I was told that by jumping on two buses in quick succession I had triggered the system into believing I had passed my card to someone else to use. Ok, all systems have security procedures. Annoying, and unnecessary though – I did have photo ID on me.
But anyway, what would they do about it? I was told it would be investigated and I’d be sent my card back in a couple of days. I wasn’t contacted and to date my complaint has not had a formal response. About 8 days later, having spent a further £15 on tickets and several more emails chasing it up, I finally got a replacement card. But things should work out now, or so I thought. After all, in the FAQ of their website, they do promise…if a mistake has been made and you have had to pay for travel when your key was valid for travel we will offer you a no quibble refund and a complimentary day’s travel on your key. That’s pretty straight forward then. A mistake was made. I had not passed back or misued my card in any way, and my card does entitle me to unlimited travel on the entire network. Except, I then got this email….
I am very sorry that it has taken so long to sort this out. We have not received your card back so I am now issuing you a new one which I will send out by first class post this evening. We are unable to refund your £24 but as a goodwill gesture I have added one extra week to your card.
During the eight days I was unable to use the card for travel that I had already paid for, I had to pay £38.20 and sit around for an extra half hour for another bus. But, as a gesture of goodwill, they are going to give me £14.39 worth of extra travel. The idea that the extra week’s worth of travel is a gesture of goodwill is actually insulting. I’d rather have the full refund, thanks very much. Technically speaking, according to their website, I should have been given 8 days complimentary travel anyway.
Here’s how I read their responses so far. Not only do spotty teenage nerds think that people who travel on public transport are bus wankers, but Wilts and Dorset also think along those lines. I’m certainly not going to leave it at that though. I will demand a formal response to my complaint. I will demand a full refund. And if they don’t come up with those, then there is an overseeing body to complain to.
Beyond that, my bus actually stops at the local County Courts. I used to sue people for debts there as part of my job. I can do one more, for old times sakes. I’ll let you know how it goes. Indeed, I’ll let as many people as possible across various social media platforms, know exactly how it goes. Wilts and Dorset will find that I am one bus wanker who’s no soft touch…
My shiny silver steed rode off into the sunset on Sunday evening, with a new owner proudly sitting atop her well padded saddle. After three weeks in the classifieds I’d been offered a reasonable price that I could accept. So, so long Comadre. It’s been a blast. I miss her already. Not just the fun that comes with riding her. Although, truth be told, the constant rain we’ve had for the last three or four months isn’t always fun. But there’s also the ability to jump on and ride anywhere, anytime. The bus system isn’t so accommodating. And now, to top it off, I’m a Bus W&%$#@.
As far as selling Comadre goes, I have just one recommendation. Spending £40 on an ad with Bike Trader was a complete waste of money. Didn’t get a single call, even though the ad was up with them a week before I advertised it elsewhere. Elsewhere being eBay. Good old eBay. I had a number of leads and offers before accepting one. The eBay ad cost just £15, and as it was a Classified ad there was no final selling fee. Bargain. Here is the final photo of Comadre. Adios amigo.
A year has passed, along with just over 7,000 miles. My Honda S-Wing just passed it’s first birthday. And she is riding as smoothly and reliably as the day I picked her up from the dealers. And yet I still don’t have a name for her. All cars and bikes that have found a way into their owners hearts should have a name. It’s not too late. I name thee, my dear Honda, Comadre. Sweet and simple.
Yet soon I must say goodbye to my Comadre. I took her for a special clean at a local jet wash, picked a spot on the drive on a sunny morning, and snapped away. Potential buyers will want to see a nice selection of photos. One of the potential buyers is going to be a very lucky actual buyer. I think, having studied the competition, that £2,650 is a fair asking price. I am throwing in a helmet, disk lock.
And a fabulous black Dainese motorcycle jacket. That jacket might be 15 years old, but it’s been well looked after and apart from light but expected wear around the cuffs and collars, but it’s otherwise good as new. It’s Gore Tex and boasts Kevlar shoulder and elbow pads. It cost £500 when I bought it. And to be fair, it has spent half of those 15 years on a hanger. You can have a looky see at my Comadre on Flickr.
It’s easy to whine fondly about the British motor industry in the past tense. And it is true, we have somewhat lost our way when it comes to mass production, the glory days long behind us. Although we do still have some wonderful marques still making fabulous cars – Jaguar, rolls Royce, Bentley, Land Rover. All foreign owned though.
But there is still one arena of the motor industry where we still excel. When it comes to making fast cars, we rule the world. McLaren are a force in Formula 1 – judging from the performance on the opening Grand Prix this season, they are the ones to beat. Britain still also holds the World Land Speed Record. Thrust SSC destroyed the old record back in the 90’s, whilst smashing through the sound barrier. And surely that sort of speed must have ruined the drivers underwear.
Another British team plan to better that record though, and smash the 1,000mph mark with Bloodhound. They’re brave. People chasing speed records have to be brave. Donald Campbell was one of the bravest, and his Bluebird car one of the most spectacular machines ever to be made. I went to see Bluebird, along with the Golden Arrow, at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. It’s a treasure trove of automobiles, including some legendary old F1 cars, a Rolls Rolls Silver Ghost and a number of land speed record setters.
There’s also a Top Gear exhibition and a James Bond exhibition. The former is a little bit ‘meh’. Actually it’s very ‘meh’. If you were thinking of going for that part alone, think again. The latter is much better. James Bond cars rock. Photos on Flickr and Google. The Flickr set is better – it contains my Instagram photos as well. I do like Instagram…
And another difference between Mexico City and London. In Mexico City, an old car is a vehicle made in the 70’s or 80’s that has seen better days. It’ll have dents, peeling paint, torn seats and a resale value of nearly nil. It will also quite possibly be a Volkswagen Beetle. In London, an old car will have elegant lines, an immaculate paint job, a sense of status and may have been made a hundred years ago. Some of them a worth a flipping fortune. As much as a house or three.
A prize goes to the person who can put a name to this vehicle. A bonus prize goes to the person who can name the TV series that helped make it famous. I photographed it in the very upmarket and sophisticated Temple area of London, where the top barristers ply their trade. Need a clue? Well, I could tell you that it was originally made in England, but that would only make the quiz harder. Perhaps if I told you that a model from this line holds the Guinness World Record for having the highest mileage of any car – that might help.
This is my second contemptuous post on corporate crassness in a week. The victim of my ire today is NationalExpress. The UK intercity coach service, who operate a near monopoly on cross country travel by bus. I bought me and Mrs P a pair of return tickets to London for just before Christmas. The 23rd and 24th to be precise. Unfortunately, I accidentally booked the wrong time for the return leg. I wanted 3pm and not 8pm. Different times have different prices, you see. But the 3pm and 8.30pm buses were the same price, and I got temporarily fixated on getting the tickets at the right price, not the right time.
Surely it’s no big deal. I mean, you just phone up and get it changed, right? There’ll be an exorbitant service fee, that’s to be expected. This is a large company. You expect to be relieved of an unreasonable amount of cash for having the cheek to inconvenience them. I also rather expected to be told that there’d not only be an exorbitant fee, but that they’d charge me the standard rate. I’d purchased what they call Funfares. And the Funfare tickets were still available on the website. But I kinda knew that they’d not simply swap my existing Funfare tickets for an alternate pair of Funfare tickets. That would be too simple.
I wasn’t, of course, disappointed. They wanted a total of £29 to change my tickets for a bus that runs five hours later. I could just go and buy a brand new pair off the website for £17.50. My gripe here isn’t so much that there’s a service fee. They have to employee someone to answer my call and change those tickets, after all. My gripe isn’t really about tickets coming with terms and conditions either. There have to be terms and conditions. My gripe is with the anti-customer mindset of these corporations. The bigger they get, the worse they get. With few exceptions*. Company policies are based not on providing excellent customer service, but on squeezing as much as possible from their customers pockets. That’s the be all and end all of it.
That’s not how it should be done. When I called up, my tickets should have simply been changed to the desired time, a small charge taken by card, and another happy customer left satisfied by their service. Why should it be done that way? Because the damn tickets are still available at the Funfare price, because it’s not a difficult thing to do, because I am a customer, because my business is valued, because they have a genuine desire to be the best at what they do and because they can do all this and still make a fair and reasonable profit.
Sadly, the way capitalism, or at least corporatism, has evolved in the 21st century, business is about getting as much money as possible for as little as possible. The excessess of capitalism aren’t really much different, in principle to communism – the majority being kept at a subsistence level by an unelected majority, indentured to products, services and employers, and with an acceptance of mediocrity and dissatisfaction. Thus, I accept I must travel with National Express and expect mediocrity and be dissatisfied. I didn’t bother forking out the £29. Nor £17.50 for new tickets. Aational Express have left me dissatisfied, and not for the first time. I’ll do more travel by train. Who’ll be equally mediocre and unsatisfactory.
* One of the exceptions that springs to mind is Amazon. Brilliant company. They were born with a massive bent on providing great customer service in their battle to overcome potential shoppers distrust of shopping on the web. It’s an ethos that’s stuck with them. It’s what they’re known for. It’s what has helped them be the success they are.
I’ve had my Honda for a couple months now, and have racked up over 1500 miles on it. It’s run-in now, and performing sweetly. It’s not as fast as my old Honda Pantheon, which was the direct predecessor of this bike. The Pantheon could, with a warm engine and a long run, top 85mph whilst the S-Wing manages just 70mph. The Pantheon had a 2 stroke engine rather than the S-Wings 4 stroke, and was a bit lighter to boot, so this is to be expected. I wouldn’t swap the engines though – I like the greater reliability of a 4 stroke. It drinks far less oil too. One thing is for sure. Honda make better scooters than I make videos.Vodpod videos no longer available.
I’m much closer to the coast here than I was in Mexico City. But they are very different coasts. The beaches across the other side of the Atlantic are sun kissed and the waters warm and inviting. On a good day, there are spots along the shore of the UK which bear fair comparison with their more exotic cousins in the Americas. Visually comparable. But any illusion of similarity is soon dispelled the moment a toe touches water.
The seas along the south coast of England tend to be more industrial. Our shipbuilding industry has declined, although there are still maritime success stories that aren’t involved with building warships, but the architecture and docks tell a story of a proud and extensive seafaring nation. There’s plenty of wrecks to explore if diving is your thing, but you’ll not only need to be the hardier sort of diver to cope with the temperature and currents, but also a sharp eyed diver, with eyesight suited to seeing through muddy water. But the English coastline does have its charm.
Every Tuesday night in Poole Quay is Bike Night. Hundreds of bikers on all sorts of machines gather to show off their steeds and admire the other bikes that make it to the seafront safely. I hadn’t been since 2003 or 2004, so I popped along last Tuesday. It’s only a pound to drive into the main street that Bike Night is hosted on.
I had intended to park away from the action, rather than ride my scooter past scores of motorcyclists clad in leathers, twiddling impressive moustaches and strutting about besides their giant Harleys., Triumphs and Hondas. But parking, the variety that doesn’t come with a potential £70 fine, was hard to find. I paid my pound and braved the crowd.
I like Poole Quay. I like the cocktail of aromas that fill the air – sea mist, burned petrol and rubber, fish and chips. I like the buildings that are a good deal more colourful than you’ll usually find in the UK. Almost Mexican-esque. The restaurants are good, and the nightlife vibrant, without being quite so liable to the outbreaks of violence and vomiting that afflicts most British towns after dark. Although sometimes those sort of events have a very satisfying ending.
Click here to see my photos on Flickr.