Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Freaks to Flypaper

If there's ever been a better phrase to sum up the dark side of the internet, then please feel free to tell me. I can't claim credit for making this one up, it came my way in a comments column in the Guardian after a review of a particularly telling documentary about Tripadvisor.

It perfectly captures the phenomenon that the interweb has created. In among all the good things, every nutter in the world has suddenly found an outlet for their bent ideas, wonky assessments, crazed conspiracies, and endless, endless complaints. Nowhere is this last facet more readily available than the pages of Tripadvisor, whose corporate colours rather unfortunately are designed in green ink.

The programme was aired by Channel Four and typically modern in that you can't simply tell stories in broadcasting now, producers have to employ a few nutters to entertain as well (there are even casting directors for factual programmes). But what resonated in this one was the coincidence that Tripadvisor has become populated by nutters - there's plenty to choose from - as it's veered off the rails. So rather than just bringing a few 'characters' (the secret of success for 'Come Dine With Me') they simply looked in the reviews of the site itself. They're there - hundreds of them, if not thousands.

A decade ago, the idea was that Tripadvisor would 'democratise' travel , give ordinary people the right of reply and replace all those old people in pullovers on TV telling us how wonderful their holidays were. User generated content was going to improve things along the way in hotels too, make people sit up and take notice. Like most startups on the interweb it had high ideals and had it worked we'd all be very happy and Tripadvisor would not be the problem it is today, both for the industry and the owners.

The owners are the conglomerate Expedia, who dominate the travel bookings industry worldwide, and Tripadvisor, like its multitude of sibling sites, now operates around the world. The investment has been huge, the marketing spend intergalactic, the creation of the global brand unstinting. And of course that - rather than the owners themselves - is where the problems lie.

The drive to create the enormous traffic that makes Tripadvisor profitable exposed the central flaw, the unfettered release of cockeyed opinions about people's businesses. In addition, there are now countless instances of false reviews - you only have to look at the creation of Kwikchex and Ihatetripadvisor to see where this is going - and the green ink brigade now have a public forum for their incessant nitpicking letters of complaint. The TV Doc chose to show some fairly crazed hoteliers who didn't do themselves any favours by swearing about guests and crying on camera about the downfall of their lifework, but the main editorial thrust of the programme nailed the problem - a veritable tsunami of downright untrustworthy editorial matter, either written for profit or put together by mouth breathers.

The reaction in the Guardian was telling. Although one of the nutters actually wrote in defending himself (not very well I'm afraid) what was most revealing was the number of people commenting about 'their' Tripadvisor, offering tips on how to read it and how it's really dominated by ordinary people saying ordinary things. People Like Us.

The disconnect between what Tripadvisor has become and what those people think it is was quite startling. None of them seem to realise the extent to which writers are now employed to praise properties, translate into other languages, provide 'normal' descriptions which push the property up Tripadvisor's grading scale. None of them seemed to have paid much attention to the avalanche of complaints from property owners complaining that the poison pen stuff can very often be written by their rivals. The column did, remarkably, contain a few people who admitted to doing this (it's anonymous, like this 'ere blog) but there remains a large body of people who think it's one big happy family enterprise.

When it's not.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Microsoft Windows Computer Company Accident Helpline

The phone is telling me that I am being called from India, and when I pick it up there is lots of crackle and hissing.
A very polite Indian gentleman speaks. "Hello Mr Johnstone - (and that is not me) - it is the Microsoft Windows Computer Company here and according to our records your computer is at risk from a virus because you have not had your computer serviced by us. What is the number of your computer please?"

"I'm sorry, who did you say you were?"

"I am the Microsoft Windows Computer Company"
"What is that?"
"We are The Microsoft Windows Computer Company. You have a Microsoft Windows Computer"
"No I don't. I don't even know what that is. Where are you calling from?"
"The Microsoft Windows Computer Company"
"Yes but where, in the world?"
"We are the UK based Microsoft Windows Computer Company and according to our records...."
"If you're UK based why are you calling me from India?"
"No we are the UK based Microsoft Windows Computer Company and...."

The conversation continues, and, needless to say, we don't get very far. I do not have a Microsoft Windows Computer.

The following day, I receive a call from another employee of The Very Wonderful Microsoft Windows Computer Company (UK) from India, and the following day, and the following day, and so on and so on. I get endless calls from them.

The conversations vary, we never get very far. One day I was even rude and the poor chap was quite taken aback, telling me that I had no reason to take that attitude, that he had never spoken to me before.

Each time I explain that I subscribe to a UK Government system that prevents nuisance cold calls, sales calls like this and while I would very much like to report them and have them jailed for life, I can't because they're getting round the system by calling from India.
"No, we are the UK based Microsoft Windows Computer Com...."
Oh shut up for God's sake.
".....pany and according to our records...."

I explain, each and every day, that I am not Mr Johnstone, I not only don't have a 'Microsoft Windows Computer" I don't even know what that is. I have many computers but I don't have one from the Microsoft Windows Computer Company (UK) (or India). I ask them, I plead with them, to take my number off their system. I ask for a superviser, I ask for anyone to stop the bloody calls.
Mrs Nationwide takes a dim view of all of this. She listens for three seconds, tells them to "Fuck Off" as rudely as she possibly can, and hangs up, smiling. I explain that while she may feel momentarily better, that is not going to stop the calls.

I try, relentlessly, day after day, to get them to stop. I can't just not answer, I get international calls all the time. I try not to get irritated. I try to explain that I do not want them to call, I too want to tell them to Fuck Off, but don't.

And then, last week, the calls stopped. There was a kind of spiritual silence. Our number has been removed from the database of The Microsoft Windows Computer Company (UK) (India) Inc.

So this morning, when the phone rings, from India, I pick it up. There is hissing and crackle and a very polite Indian gentleman asks for Mr Johnstone and tells me he is calling from "The Accident Helpline Company" and that they have been informed that someone in my household has an action still pending after a car accident within the past three years.
"What accident? What car?"
"Ah can you tell me your car registration number please?"
"No I can not tell you anything. Who are you and where are you calling from?"
"We are the UK based Accident Helpline Company and we have information about an accident. Somebody in your household. In the last three years"
"Why are you calling me from India then?"
"No. We are the UK-based Accident Helpline Company"
"Can you tell me any of the details of the information you have?" I ask, quietly.
"Unfortunately due to The Data Protection I cannot disclose that" he reads off his screen, and then adds for good measure, "But have you had an accident? In the past three years? Or somebody in your household?"

I ask if there's anyone there from the Microsoft Windows Computer Company and he has no idea what I'm talking about. I feel I should explain. But I can't be arsed.
Mrs Nationwide can answer all calls from India for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Exactly ten years ago today I was standing at my desk in my office in Central London, talking to an ex-employee about future prospects. We'd been for a pint.
The phone rang. It was my PA and very good friend telling me to turn on the TV. Jokingly, I said I was busy and hung up. She rang back. "Turn on the FUCKING TELLY" she shouted and what seemed like seconds later was upstairs in the corner of my office turning on said telly so we could see the North Tower of the World Trade Centre burn.
We had no idea what we were watching. It looked like a movie.
My partner appeared from her office next door. Her brother, whom she was very close to, worked for a company called Marsh McLennan in New York. They occupied the top few floors of the North Tower.
We stared in disbelief.
As an independent media company in London who worked for several broadcasters, principally in the US, we had a TV that was almost permanently tuned to CNN.
The second plane hit as we were watching.
Our office, like everybody else's, ground to a halt quickly as all the staff came in to watch my TV. My partner began to cry. She began to sob, uncontrollably. Within a few minutes she was screaming. As the rest of us watched the buildings collapse we realised we were not watching a movie, but some kind of declaration of war on the western world. She thought she was watching her brother die.
The phones were going mad. My ex-wife called from Canary Wharf in London's Docklands to say they were being evacuated because they thought they were the next target. Understandably, she was terrified as she fled the building. But not as inconsolable as my partner. She was shaking and crying as the picture unfolded before us.

It's ten years ago now, and as a consequence of time, we are distanced from the hell of that day. Paul Greengrass's movie "United 93" perfectly captures the terror, and last week a documentary shown on ITV in the UK made by Brook Lapping "9/11: The Day That Changed The World" recorded the ticktock nature of how it all unfolded.

But on the day itself we were watching complete and utter confusion. We were also watching in excess of 3000 people being murdered, live on TV.

There was no communication with New York. My partner thought her brother was dead. We were due to fly to Japan at 5pm but everything was grounded. Our cameraman, based in New Zealand, was already in the air, heading towards Kansai, where he later landed and was forced to stay (in Kyoto) for two days - where incidentally everyone was utterly civil to him, constantly apologising for what had happened. In London, our staff were gathered on the floor of my office drinking and smoking, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. At some point in the middle of this madness my partner's brother managed to get a telephone connection to a Canadian friend, who communicated to his sister that he was not dead after all. He had been at a breakfast meeting in midtown that morning and was alive.

It was all his colleagues who were dead.

I used to live in New York, in Lower Manhattan, and decided we were going, that moment. We started, sometime in the late afternoon, and realised en route it was futile. Civilian Airspace over the USA, as we all now know, was closed, but a chartered 'media' flight from Stansted was on standby to go to Canada, so we headed there and met everyone we knew, waiting but grounded for what turned out to be two days or so. We stayed in the terminal building for most of the night then headed back to London.

I headed out on the first available flight from Heathrow a couple of days later with American Airlines, whom I'd always flown with and always will. I'd turned up - as advised - three hours before departure. Heathrow was a ghost town. I sailed through checkin and security. I sat and waited. And waited. On my own. The flight was called and I boarded and sat. The plane was virtually empty.

Fifteen minutes before takeoff, a late passenger came running on, sweating. This was unsettling in itself. He was a Middle Eastern gentleman, in full dishdash, pulling his luggage down the aisle.
In normal circumstances, this would have been perfectly acceptable.......

I arrived in New York having been told that I would get "nowhere near" Ground Zero because of security - everything was closed south of Canal Street. I walked all the way down through Lower Manhattan from SoHo, and walked straight in to Ground Zero. I wandered around. It was surreal. I'd never visited a demolition site before, let alone one on this scale, and ironically it had the air of a construction site, there was so much frenetic activity. A couple of days before I'd been watching the towers burn. Here I was wandering around the rubble.
I spoke to all kinds of people who were engaged in various activities. My camera crew refused to come anywhere near at first but I persuaded them. We walked freely around the area, interviewing the most astonishing people for a series of programes in the most astonishing circumstances.
Everything was covered in thick, thick dust.
I spoke with my old neighbours in Tribeca, including the owners of restaurants like Robert de Niro's Tribeca Grill . "I can't take my boots off" said Tracey, one of his partners, looking down at the dust, "That's not just dust. That's people we used to deliver food to"
I'd always bought my shoes from Craig's Shoes on Chambers Street and spoke with them too. They'd stood and looked up as the first plane hit. "Den I jus ran" said Pedro, " as fast as my liddle legs could go. All the way up to Canal" But that day and next they supplied boots to the rescue workers - 700 pairs.

It was a harrowing period, but at least I wasn't one of the thousands of bereaved who were posting notes on the fence down at Ground Zero. I was exploring displaced companies in buildings with no electricity, following Giuliani to funeral after funeral and suddenly running on to helicopters to try to go to more, talking to people who had absolutely no fucking idea why they had been attacked and witnessing deeply personal stories - hi Nan - which won't be revealed again here.

I shuttled back and forth to London and after the work was over I returned to spend New Year's Eve in Times Square, the "W" Hotel was opening early and having a party. The ball dropped on the stroke of midnight and there was an audible gasp - believe me, everyone feared another attack - but all was well.

It was only a little time later that I returned again with my small daughter, and we revisited our loft apartment in Reade Street, where the front window had perfectly framed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. She looked out through the glass and burst into tears.
"It's not there" she wailed.

No darling, it's not.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Hot Dog

Speaking as someone who has never knowingly bought a branded product as a result of advertising, and refuses to consider self delusion as a trait, it came as a shock to turn into Pavlov's Dog on reading, of all things, a restaurant review. I tend not to go to restaurants because of reviews, I have to go to too many as a matter of course, but Jay Rayner in the UK Observer wrote about a new Chinatown gaff, Manchurian Legends, which hit a deep, dark spot. So my journey is personal, not professional, and we are therefore blogging.

Of all the big dick-swinging critics who inhabit the UK media, Jay is up at the top of the heap, a talented writer with a neat line in self-deprecation who has happily turned his attention to restaurants after many years looking at slightly more dangerous areas of life. He is also adept at chairing the UK panel of the "World's Best 50 Restaurants" which manages to be no such thing, as it's almost entirely controlled by Brits, and being the author of a fine international book, The Man Who Ate The World, which if nothing else tells you some of the best places to go in Japan.

All the critics go to new London places, then they all scurry off and feel guilty about spending all their time in the Capital (except Giles Coren, another Japan expert) and visit Surrey. Or Yorkshire.

But Jay's unashamed metropolitan foray into Macclesfield Street in London's Chinatown had left me slavering with anticipation. I had to go.
The place itself is small and boring, ("we hope you enjoy our 1910's decor") but let me explain that I expect my favourite places in Chinatown to be small and boring. My comfort zone is the CCK (large and boring) and The New World (boring). In Lisle Street the smallest, most boring place is Hing Loon, but what these three and a few others have in common is wonderful, cheap food. I'm afraid as Chinatown has declined the new places with big glossy menus and big plastic ornamentation don't do it for me. I'm an old Loon Fung regular.

Let's just say from the getgo that Jay's enthusiasm is not misplaced. Manchurian Legends is excellent. It's got a menu unlike any of its Cantonese neighbours (the food, and the chef, come from North East China) and Jay's eulogising is firmly rooted in his adoration of hot, spicy food, faintly irregular piggy bits that come fired with chilli, or oozing with dense, savoury flavour. And that, in the form of grilled kebabs, is the main attraction here.

There's a lunchtime menu for under a tenner - don't bother with that - the kebabs are only £1.50 and they're big! Forget those little JapaneseYakitori sticks or Basque pinxto cocktail sticks, these are big and meathy. And they are laden with chilli. Imagine you'd just cooked a kebab, which had already been marinading in something hot and spicy, and after it came off the grill you decided to adorn it with rock salt and then a generous helping of dried chilli flakes and a few other dried spices that were to hand. You're getting the idea.

We couldn't even finish the fourth one, a pork belly kebab (£1.50!) because the previous lamb ones had been tender, full of flavour and hot.

Before that we'd followed Mr Rayner's advice and started with spinach and chilli - cold dressed fresh green leaves spiked with chilli and mixed with peanuts. Gorgeous. But I also headed for unknown territory, chilli pork jelly with garlic, having promised not to have jelly fish again. Not a popular choice when sharing. (in theory at least). The pork jelly was toothsome, meaning not too soft, but with a slight tendency towards meatiness. Yum.
After that there were dumplings, admirably home made and meaty (pork and pickle) with a fiery dipping sauce thick with solid matter - chilli flakes, spices, etc. What Mr Rayner failed to point out (as far as I remember) was the sheer size of the portions. We over-ordered, a bowl of rice lay virtually untouched.

There came a point, about halfway through the kebabs, when I felt as if I was on fire. Not an unpleasant experience, more a warmth from the chilli heat that took over. In fact, this being the end of the summer, it was pleasant indeed. It lasted until well after we left. We couldn't do mains, too much, but the menu reads well, if a little foreign - hot and spicy pig knuckle, leek fried pork jelly, stir-fried pig's offal (with chilli - you're getting the picture?) and steamed fish head with, er, chilli and pepper. Even with two glasses of wine, our bill was still under £20 a head, without mains but replete.

A place to go back to time and again. I have booked three big eaters for a day starting at the French, dining here, and then possibly repairing to the French again.

Why, I'm almost salivating at the thought.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

'ello 'ello 'ello

If you've been in trouble with the police recently, then I suggest you move along quietly, there's nothing more to be seen here. But if you're an innocent, and want a little rubber necking, then please slow down (if you're doing something else like driving while reading this) and I'll tell you a story, a real life crime story.

Now don't be misled, this is not a major heist or bloodthirsty murder, quite the opposite in fact, a misdemeanour so slight as to be barely worth mentioning. Which is why I'm mentioning it.

In a deserted London suburban street I committed a traffic offence. I ignored a 'no entry' sign and drove down the 10 yards of one way that has been created to stop people like me taking a short cut. No excuses (like my partner telling me to do it because we were in a hurry and me saying "no, because one day there will be a cop assigned here to catch people like you" ) I did it and saved myself a few seconds on the journey. Hands up. Guilty.

There wasn't A cop, there were four, who came after me in an unmarked car with lights blazing and sirens going, thus disturbing a few sleepy cats on the windowsills.

I stopped as they piled out their car and came towards me. The sergeant, the lead officer, barked at me to switch off the engine and get out the vehicle. I complied and came to face him on the pavement.
He was big, and wearing wraparound sunglasses.
He stared at me. His arms were folded across a chest that is best described as 'mighty'.
"How's you're day been?" he asked, not actually caring how my day had been, but said in a manner that suggested a downhill trajectory.
I tried a smile, "Up until a few moments ago it was fine", thinking that a little humour might be in order.
He continued to stare at me.
"What do you mean by that?" he said, louder, leaning towards me, not quite towering over me, but certainly invading my space, as they say.
I thought that humour might be off the agenda.
"Well, you've just stopped me," I offered, meekly.
"I don't like your attitude," he continued, getting louder still, "I don't like it at all. I expect lip from the kids, but not from grown adults"
He moved in close, and pointed at his chest badge with his name on it.
"See that?" he asked, inches from my face, "That's me, that's my name and rank"
I tried to look innocent (go on, you try it). It clearly didn't work because he started to bellow at me, in my face.
This was less than amusing. His threatening manner was working, he was intimidating in the extreme. I thought amelioration might be better.
"I apologise if there's anything in my demeanour that's wrong, sorry" I couldn't have been more apologetic, polite, nice. I laid it on thick. "I don't mean to be rude. Sorry"
This didn't work either.
"You know you could have KILLED SOMEONE there, someone could be DEAD now because of YOU" He wasn't foaming at the mouth, but he was certainly increasing his heart rate underneath all the weaponry he appeared to be carrying.
He continued in this vein and it was clear that (a) he utterly despised me and people like me and (b) I was going to get really done and regret it.

The Good Lady looked out the car as they began to interrogate her too. The four of them went at it. I expected yellow tape at any second and helicopter overhead. "Overkill" is fascinating to watch as it unfolds before you. There should be a cop series called that.

My body language suggested defeat. I apologised, offered my license, explained that I'd had it a very long time and no, there were no points on it at all. I was barked at for not having the paper section. I was asked, several times, if I was insured to drive the car. The Good Lady was being interrogated as well now, there were two of them shouting into their radios, checking our ID's, checking the licence plate, checking road tax, ownership, addresses, and one on the phone because they'd run out of radios. The noise level in what had been a completely silent street was now quite amazing. Nets were twitching in windows. There was an "incident" unfolding.
I was reminded that I could have KILLED someone by my actions (that's strictly true, had there been anyone in the street at the time) and then I was told that I was GOING TO BE FINED £60, get three POINTS, and had to GO TO A POLICE STATION of my choice with my documentation.
I was asked if I was proud of myself, if I realised that my actions COULD HAVE KILLED SOMEONE and did I NORMALLY DO THIS??

"WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING??" he barked at me, some ten minutes into this activity. "YOU COULD HAVE KILLED SOMEONE!!"

I think I had the message now, but I complied, smiled, did what they asked.

Then it began to go pear shaped. The tax disc was out of date. Back home, on the stairs, was the new one (genuinely) but in these circumstances we may as well have suggested that it wasn't our DNA found at the scene of the murder. I thought I was going to be cuffed and taken down the station but fortunately one of the other four, a minor one, offered that he had already checked with DVLA and everything was in order.

The sergeant looked at me with eyes that whispered of their own accord "oh, you are so fucking lucky this time" and then proceeded to explain to me, three times, about the fine, the points, the fact that I could have killed someone and that if I didn't appear in the police station they'd be coming after me, there'd be a warrant out for my arrest. I'd be in REAL TROUBLE.

Fifteen minutes later, it was over. Four of London's finest marched back to their car and roared off. I drove off too, thanking God that I was in a two way street and therefore not going to KILL SOMEONE!!!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


It is a rare thing indeed that I get all effervescent and radiant about something as simple as lunch. I am in the very fortunate position that I dine out excessively, something I enjoy, but it takes a lot to get the wibbles wobbling, to coin a phrase.

At lunch today, my utterly charming Good Lady had taken the unusual step of booking somewhere we hadn't been. I'm not a creature of habit because I travel like a maniac but I do tend towards the same places around town of an evening or quiet day. Lunch is usually something simple at home anyway.

The joint in question is expensive, overly so, has been patronised by Michael Winner (in both senses of the word) and other famous luminaries. You sit in a greenhouse, on furniture straight out the jumble sale, on an earthen floor, surrounded by plants and yummy mummies. It is not the kind of place where I'm usually to be found. Any time I am, there's a mental note being made, to sit it out, enjoy the bits I can, and get out, never to return.

As I read the menu, a familiar voice was making such mental notes.

The prices are a shock. A starter of a couple of tomatoes was over twelve quid. A main of salmon was 35! Thirty Five quid for a piece of fish!!

The little voice was now talking out loud. I could hear my own voice saying across the table "Jesus H Christ, have you seen these prices!!" in a tone not normally used outside a loud pub. The Good Lady smiled beatifically.

I ordered the tomatoes, then I ordered another starter, peas and cheese lets call it - that was fifteen quid! TGL ordered more conventionally , a starter and a main.

The wine was only ever going to be house but to be honest the wine list was very inviting. We had a sauvignon blanc, from the Languedoc, La Croix, which was sharp and summery, dry but floral, with a zing and a blast on the tongue. It stood out from the normal stuff consumed chez nationwide. It was under £20 and worth it.

My starter of two tomatoes arrived. They were, I was told, Camone and Cuore de Bue, two types of which I've never heard. This is mainly because I've never paid the slightest attention to anything beyond "cherry" and "plum" although I did find myself baulking in sainsburys one day when I saw a sign saying "grown for flavour". What are the others grown for? Fun?

The tomatoes were good. Very good. But they were tomatoes. There was a little light white cheese, or more accurately, goat's curd, which was light and almost fluffy without a trace of acidity, but with a very piquant flavour which lingered long after it should. I silently scoffed.
But it was the oil that did it. Now here's something that I know a teeny bit about. We choose our oils with care and, when we can afford, splurge. I bring back various olive oils from abroad and mix and match in dressings with a variety of ingredients.

This was a smooth, green Italian oil which just rolled around the mouth with an elegance that is rare. An oil slick which I began to savour more than the tomatoes, more than the goat's curd.
My God, I was enjoying it! Twelve quid for two tomatoes and I'm enjoying it?

More than that, I was loving it. I didn't want it to end. I nearly licked my plate. I certainly ran my finger round it just before the charming waitress took it away. "That was something else, " I muttered, "That oil was incredible"
"Good, isn't it?" she smiled back, "It's a tuscan, Fontodi, it's right in season right now"

I stared at TGL. "In season?" And the waitress knew? What is this place, foodie heaven?

My second starer arrived. Peas and cheese. To be fair, it was fresh peas, picked just an hour or so ago, with fresh beans, fresh asparagus and decorated with pea shoots, the spindly wee growths that children chuck away and adults now prize (they taste good)

All dressed in more Fontodi oil, a slick way too small for me, sprinkled (sorry drizzled) over and lying in a puddle underneath. It was very welcome.

But this time it was the cheese. It was fresh buffalo mozzarella. Now you know what mozzarella is, they sell it in the supermarket, put it on pizzas, and if you're lucky it won't be rubbery.
This was different.
I've given up on mozarella in this country. Like ricotta, it can't be transported. I had a conversation in Puglia last year, about this very thing, with a small cheese producer. I asked if he exported (he laughed) and then I asked if you could even get it in Rome. He looked at me and said it didn't go beyond twenty miles of the farm. "It would taste different" he said.
And he's right, it does.
There's a very special mozarella in Puglia - Matera produces the best - which is actually cheese and cream. It's called Burrata, and although a few places in the UK have an imported version, there is nothing like the real thing. Nothing, I tell you.

But this mozarella was so soft and creamy, stringy and mellow, it was like being in Italy. In the south, where under some vegetation, I'd be in the sun, on a terrace, eating the food of the Gods, using a spoon the mozzarella would be so soft, so light and delicious......
Hang on, I am on a sun kissed terrace, I am surrounded by fresh air and creeper plants, this is the food of the Gods.

I stole a taste of TGL's scall0ps with borlotti beans, my gawd it was good - run through with garlicky pesto and fresh tasting herbs (which were fresh because they grow here, in the greenhouse next door) .

A finale of gorgonzola was soft, tangy, unctious, saddled with figs preserved in red wine. I could barely bring myself to share it.

It is summertime. It's a sunny day. this place has been open a few years and apparently slebs go to slum it with the yummy mummies and drop a ton at lunch.

By God it's worth it. Every penny.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Car Crash Time.

"Is there anything else I can do for you today sir?" Yes. Get lost.

Last year we went onto one of those car insurance policy websites which are the subject of a mad UK TV advertising war. I can't remember if it had a meerkat or a mad opera singer but it worked. It allowed us to see various quotes and we opted for the cheapest, thus saving several hundred pounds.

Since then, we get regular calls from the old insurance company who don't seem to know that we don't insure with them any more, even though we told them and cancelled the policy in writing. I have long conversations with them, where I patiently go through all our details, answering all their repetitive questions, listening to he/she click away on a computer, until we reach the point where I'm allowed to speak. I tell them that we don't insure with them any more. Generally, there's a momentary pause, just enough to register a faint degree of embarrassment, and then the phrase, "Is there anything else I can do for you today sir?" I politely explain that no, there is nothing else they can do today as we don't do business with them. And we hang up.

And so it goes on, and on. Now, the calls are been coming shorter, as I'm a teeny bit irritated, so I don't let them bang on with their needless questions, I interrupt quickly to get the damn call overwith. But there is always, always, time to say at the end "Is there anything else I can do for you today?". Even though I'm not a customer, not going to be (ever again) and the whole call is the result of an internal datacrunching mistake. But my mother always told me to be polite.

So the new policy is coming up for renewal and whaddyaknow, on the policy comparison website we can save £200 by changing again. Not £2, or £20, but £200! I call the insurance company to put it to them that if they come down we can renew with them right now. Today.

That's all it will take, a short conversation to discuss price. Do we have that? No. Do we have a short call? No. Do we get to discuss price? No. Do we have time to conclude our pointless, frustrating exchange of information with the phrase "Is there anything else I can do for you today sir?". Yes.

The entire conversation is spent poring over details that are in a written, completed online form. That we both have in front of us. Twice. The price goes UP by £15, then comes back down by 40p. I keep trying to interrupt to explain the purpose of the call but I'm swatted away like a fly. "Do you still do the same number of miles?" "Yes" "Do you still park in the same place?" "Yes" "Do you still......" "Yes, yes yes! It's there, in front of you, in black and white!"

"There's nothing I can adjust here sir" he explains, because my details apparently haven't changed between me checking the form five minutes ago and now. "There's nothing to change"

"That's not why I'm calling" I explain patiently.
"We came to you last year because you offered a better, cheaper deal. If you can offer a better, cheaper deal this year, we'll stay"
"Sorry there's nothing I can do" he says, his hands tied by the fact that I suddenly haven't changed my details and probably the desire to get on with his Tesco snack deal. Not even a flicker of negotiation, not even a second's thought to the possibility that we're about to change companies. We're about to become ex-customers in this very call.
I explain, in less than 10 seconds that that seems to be that then, and possibly I shouldn't even have bothered calling. I'm not even sure he was listening.
"Is there anything else I can do for you today sir?"

No. There isn't today. Nor was there yesterday. Nor will there be tomorrow. Or in fact ever. Goodbye.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs.

We were talking about him only today. Sexy or what?

Ryan Giggs, certainly one of the best football players in the UK today. He's been recognised all over the world for his talents.
Good player, on and off the field. Good man.

It must be difficult to do the business when you're under the spotlight all the time, pity there's no way to turn the spotlight off - ha! take out an injunction or whatever! Ha!

Anyway, is Ryan Giggs the sexiest player in the field today? Well, is he?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Your Call Is Most Definitely Not Of The Slightest Importance To Us. Now Get Lost.

Once, cars broke down and at the side of the road, you repaired them. Once, you had a telephone that occasionally malfunctioned and a bloke would fix it. Once, every negotiation didn't require lawyers for days on end and 500 emails. Once........

But enough with the nostalgia. Further to my last post about the shaky business end of mobile phonery I have an update. My mobile phone company, Nomi Mobile, did, in fact go bust, as can be confirmed here. I was right, their obfuscation and call avoidance was concealing an office emptied of employees, with tumbleweed blowing through it, and a lonely receiver sitting at a desk trying to pick all the pieces up to make an asset sale.

I know, I've been in there three times.

Why? Well I have a mobile number on which I'm pretty dependent and the rules of the game allow me to take that number and "migrate" to another network for any reason. All the mobile company has to do is tell you what your PAC Code is over the phone and.....well that's if they're answering their phones. Which Nomi aren't.

So I popped in and had a friendly chat. Aaah, they said, we don't have your PAC Code, sorry, that was "outsourced" to a company that doesn't appear to be answering the phone.
"The networks will be able to help" they offered, cheerily. Well, after several days of talking to customer service on Three, 02, Orange, and Vodaphone, let's just say that those charming people on customer services were not able to help. Dealing with callcentres is bad enough when you know what you're talking about.

No the company Nomi pointed me to are called LycaTel, who are another MVNO. I'm sorry, you don't know what an MVNO is? It's a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, you dolt, where have you been?
MVNO's are companies that don't have the infrastructure, the radio frequency, or anything really (except possibly the cash) to set up a mobile phone network. But what they do is come into the market and do a deal. Just like LycaTel, who did a deal. And for those of you who think this has been complicated so far, hang on to your hats.

Nomi, apparently, were with Vodaphone, the company becoming better known for their tax affairs than telephone services. The up popped LycaTel who - in conjunction with Plintron (don't even ask) - POACHED Nomi from Vodafone and took them to 02. Who, in the great scheme of things, are the Spanish Company Telefonica. But more importantly in the UK use the network owned by.....Vodafone.

Still with me?

So, if I want to retain my number I, well let's start with OfCom, the Government Regulator who sorts out all this snaffoofery. I had complained to OfCom a couple of weeks ago when I thought Nomi were going South. "Yes" they said, "Um, you're a customer with, um, Nomi. What can we do for you?"
I explained, as best I could. "Nothing to do with us" was the essence of the reply, before uttering the immortal phrase, "Is there anything else we can do for you today?"


So I decide to call Lycatel to get my PAC Code (we'll be coming to Plintron in a moment. patience)

I have no idea who Lycatel are, but they're based in the UK in East London. I call and get switchboard and ask for the Managing Director, Mr Kangle.
"He's not at his desk" comes the reply.
Or his PA.
I ask for someone who deals with Nomi.
"That's Mr Jogan" I'm told, "He's not in"
OK, let's try, um, technical. An internal extension rings out somewhere in the building.
I call back a total of 7 times. I get nowhere.

Then I look up this article and discover that Plintron are a company in the middle of all this, that, according to their website, facilitate 'mobile number portability' and it is probably THEY who have my PAC Code, my number, and the answer to all my dreams.

But guess what? They don't have a phone.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

"Your Call Is Important To Us"

No it's not.

It has replaced the American platitude "Have a nice day" and the call centre mantra "Is There Anything Else I Can Do For You Today?" (because I haven't managed to do anything for you so far) as the most hollow, hated phrase of modern life.

On voicemails which used to play a tinkling version of Greensleeves to drive you mad ("I'm paying for the call, f*cking answer!") we now have our music interrupted by a synthesised voice telling us how valued we are, not to hang up - just because we don't employ enough people to take our calls without the wait - and that while you are a V.I.P. it's just that we're going to keep you hanging on for a little while longer, just a little while, possibly until that watched pot boils, or possibly long enough for you to have spent god knows what on our 0845 number that you're going to slam the phone down.

And then dial again.

The worst version of "Can I Do Anything Else For You Today" was an anonymous car hire company (clue : Avis) who shut their Las Vegas office early one day and left me stranded. They were unable to get me a car, left me in the middle of nowhere, but ended the call, "Now, is there anything else.....etc" But that's old hat now.

Today I'm an important VIP according to my mobile phone provider, Nomi Mobile.
Never heard of them? Few people have. They're a service provider who for the past few years have managed to undercut every mobile phone producer in the UK on cost. They're based in Madeira but don't let that put you off. Madeira's a nice place and Funchal a nice town. In fact if I had a cricket bat I'd be round there now. Or a baseball bat. Or a brick.

Nomi have been letting me down of late. The network keeps falling off the end of something. Calls go unanswered. You dial, there's silence. People call me and don't get through. I get exasperated voicemails "where you been? I've been calling you for ages" when all the time I've been sitting at my desk and the phone hasn't rung.

But I accept that I may have to have a reduced quality service to make the savings. They must be buying up line time or whatever it is they do, to make it so cheap. But as a service provider in the UK they have to maintain standards according to OFTEL, the industry regulator.

But the last two weeks have been exceptional. The service wouldn't work at all while I was abroad. I came home furious, emailed and called. I was told that my call was very important etc and eventually I got an apologetic email. A short one.

Then it happened again last week. This time I couldn't send texts but unbeknown to me every "failed" text was being sent - in triplicate - and I was driving people mad. I called and emailed again. This time, despite being told that my call was important I didn't get a reply. I didn't get an email.

Yesterday the whole network ceased to work. I called. I was told how important I was then suddenly a real person came on the line.
"It's a temporary network condition" I was told.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's a temporary network condition"
"You just said that. What is it?"
"I am only allowed to tell you it's a temporary network condition" she repeated.
"But I don't know what that is" I replied.
"It will be fixed in two to three hours" she said.
"The Temporary Network Condition?"

It wasn't fixed. And today there is no human. There is simply a voice - for hours and hours - telling me how important my call is.

The truth is harsh. My call is not important. And to Nomi Mobile, who may even have gone bust today, it never was.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mystery House (2)

Rather incredibly, particularly if you read my previous blog Mystery House, it appears we have Mystery House 2, like a follow up horror movie. Except there's no movie. And no horror.

We live by the sea as well as the city, and have a nice little house in a lovely little coastal town. It's in a nice street, with nice neighbours, and is a nice home. It's not a weekend cottage, we split our time fairly evenly as the two properties are only an hour or so apart.

The seaside house is in mid terrace and the rear yard is completely enclosed by solid, high walls - we live on a hill and back onto the rear gardens of the street above. There's no way in or out at the back, except through the door. You'd need a twelve foot / four metre ladder to escape. Or be a seagull on the scrounge.

A few weeks ago, we arrived and my partner said she thought someone had been in the house. I asked why she thought this and she said she didn't know. Sixth sense.We didn't really think very much about it, but a fortnight ago, she said it again. There were small things slightly moved she said. We looked around and couldn't see much, but she was convinced.

Without actually donning a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker, we considered this carefully. It's not a street for breakins, nothing had been stolen anyway, and the neighbours are always here, even if we're not.

We have two cats. Occasionally we have to take them with us, on a kind of seaside holiday, if we can't get them looked after for a few days. They travel well and arrive, saunter about, and then generally just go to sleep. (They sleep a lot). To accommodate the little mites, there is a cat flap on the back door. Their litter tray is outside and there has to be a little step because the flap is too high for them.

I noticed a few weeks ago that the step was on its side. Nothing unusual there, it's plastic and could easily blow over in the wind. A strong wind. Then I noticed another time it had blown over. Strong winds again, I thought.

Then we arrived with the cats and they went berserk, running hither and thither, sniffing the cat flap, clearly excited. "It's a cat" she said.

"Yeah, but how does it get in and out?" I asked.

"Dunno" she said, staring up the smooth wall.

Cats can climb, but they don't have ropes and crampons to take them up sheer walls to a height of about three or four metres.

Then we arrived last night and the cats went mental again. This time not only was the step outside blown over, but the step inside was tipped over too. The litter tray had been used, the water had been drunk. And enough dry cat food to feed Battersea's feline inmates had been consumed. It was a cat alright.

But we'd already checked with the neighbours. They didn't have a cat, and there was no way into their back garden that a high jumping cat could enter. Their neighbours didn't have a cat either. So we were stumped. A fox maybe?

Then I noticed a sign in the corner shop about Missing Moggy Monty, a gentle old soul who liked nothing better than a nap, a constitutional around the garden, before another nap. He'd been missing for three days.

I called and explained that in our absence a cat was making himself at home. Could be Monty. Next thing you know, Monty turns up, after three days AWOL. It certainly looked like Monty had been staying at our gaff.

Alls well that ends well, Monty's now asleep in his favourite spot, and we think we know who was in our house.

But then we looked again at the height of the wall ............