A short guide to blasphemy

It seems a long time ago, but I guess it was when my parents were about the age I am now, that they spent a fair bit of time trying out new stuff. One of their adventures was into the world of antiques and furniture restoration, which is where our story of blasphemy begins, in a very very roundabout way.

They were pretty good at what they did, which was mainly old chairs – my Dad had enough patience to painstakingly strip away layers from the wooden bits, and my Mum learnt how to weave the canework onto the seats. She got so good that she started advertising her services in the local paper, and was quite taken aback when the responses to ‘Caning by Annette’ seemed to be after, well, a specialism that she couldn’t offer.

To get a ready supply old furniture, they started to visit auction houses, and would return with all manner of knackered wooden chairs, plus anything else that took their fancy. And, unfortunately for one of their three offspring, one week, what they fancied was a painting called ‘The Watercart’.

‘The Watercart’ is a painting that pretty much defies description – you really need to witness it for yourself to understand just how awful it is. It manages to combine all of the saccharine aspects of Constable’s early work with the brushwork of a deranged Broadmoor patient. It’s about 2 feet wide, meaning that it would stand out on any wall, and is complemented by an ugly frame that is probably worth slightly more than the painting itself. Around 50p, at last estimate.

I think they realised their mistake fairly early on, and my sister, who recently described their marriage as ’60 years of bickering and jokes’, was particularly vociferous in her criticism. We could tell that matters were not going to end well when my Mum starting blaming my Dad for buying the painting in the first place, then, slightly more quietly, my Dad would suggest it was all her fault. Matters went from bad to worse, and the painting was removed from public view, and then my Mum came up with her ingenious scheme to use the situation to punish her own children.

I was probably about 30 when The Watercart entered my life, and I think I’d hoped by then that parental punishments might have become a thing of the past. Just goes to show that you should never underestimate your parents; a lesson that I’m very keen on passing on to my own kids.

Basically, the punishment would go like this:

  • Child offends parent in some way (possibly not turning up for a party, buying a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, mentioning that gardening is essentially a boring activity etc)
  • Parent consults with other parent for some time, usually out of earshot
  • Declaration is made that the child is to be punished by receiving ‘The Watercart’ in parent’s will

It is an unwritten rule that the painting will need to be displayed prominently when it is passed on, to make it a real and constant punishment, and I like to think that it will be used extensively to penalise future generations. I am very much hoping that neither I nor any of my children (rules have recently been amended to allow the punishment to skip a generation direct to a least-favoured grandchild) will be in the firing line.

Most recently the will has been pointed at my sister, for some imagined slight, possibly letting slip that the taste of this year’s chutney wasn’t quite as good as the year before. However, it may now be heading in the direction of my brother, who I believe was the force behind an official letter from Buckingham Palace congratulating my parents on their 60 years of marriage. My father, who has been a die-hard republican all of his life, is a little perturbed that HM has been writing to him and my mum personally, and would probably see any individual responsible as deserving a bit of a Watercart discussion.

There’s a reason for telling you all of this, and it’s really as a warning to my own family that I may well be about repoint The Watercart in my own general direction. Because this blog is about swearing, and my Mum’s views on swearing are very traditional. She will not approve.

One of the first times I can remember my Mum getting cross with me was when I was about eight, in the garden, I dropped something on my foot and exclaimed ‘Bloody Hell’. She went absolutely bananas, not just because I’d cursed in front of her, but also in front of my grandmother, who was actually looking on with what I thought was quiet approval.

In those days, ‘Bloody Hell’ was pretty serious stuff. On a one to ten scale, it was probably only a five or six, at about the same level as ‘’Cor Blimey’, but it was as far as any right thinking child would go. Just below would be ‘Flipping Heck’ or ‘Flaming Hell’. Just above was ‘Bastard’, ‘Bugger’ and ‘Shit’, and  beyond that were the words that you knew, but would never use, except perhaps to look up in dictionaries or to whisper to yourself at night, just to understand what they sounded like.   

Remember I’m talking about the late 1960’s here, this was a fair while before the Sex Pistols upset Bill Grundy, and across the land people kicked in the front of their TV sets after Steve Jones used the F word (#9 on our 1-10 list). Next morning, my paper round took much longer than usual, as, wide-eyed, I read and re-read the headlines:

Well, this was forty years ago, and the world seems to have relaxed a bit around the whole blasphemy malarkey. I would struggle these days to upset anyone, even my mother, by saying ‘bloody hell’ while, for example, hammering my own thumb. But at number 9 & 10 on our profanity index, there’s still an opportunity to offend.

Unless you’ve spent the last five months working on a building site which, as it happens, I have.

And on a building site, there’s a whole different way of talking, where F&C words are just thrown about like confetti, and, as a result, they don’t really mean anything. It’s a bit like wearing your winter coat in September, when you know it’s going to get colder; there’s nowhere really to go. Where you do need the equivalent of another layer of clothing in November, the F&C gets repeated and repeated, and used in innovative ways, just to get the point across.

To illustrate how it works, to avoid any undue distress, and to allow this blog to creep through some security filters, let’s carry on with a bit of word substitution. For the F word, we need a word that works as a noun, a verb and an exclamation, and describes something fairly old and knackered, with sexual overtones. So we’re going to use the word Stringfellow. For the C word, we need to substitute a word that means something deeply unpleasant and incredibly distasteful. So we’re going to use the word Trump.

As an example, when I got to work last Monday morning, these are the words that greeted me:

‘Morning, you old trump, you look completely stringfellowed.’

Hopefully you get the gist. To illustrate how to use our words on site, the Emu will now be submitting the following definition to the Oxford English Dictionary (Stringfellowing Builder’s Edition)



vulgar slang

Origin – early 16th/20th century: of Germanic/Northern English origin


Vulgar slang

verb: stringfellow; 3rd person present: stringfellows; past tense: stringfellowed; past participle: stringfellowed; gerund or present participle: stringfellowing

  1. have sexual intercourse with (someone) or (of two people) have sexual intercourse.
  2. damage or ruin (something).


  • That digger is totally stringfellowed since Fred’s been driving it.
  • <insert name of supplier> have been stringfellowing us about since Christmas


noun: fuck; plural noun: fucks

  1. an act of sexual intercourse;a sexual partner of a specified ability.


  • I hope you’re a better stringfellow than a bricklayer, mate, cos otherwise you’re no stringfellowing use to no one.


exclamation: stringfellow

  1. used alone or as a noun or verb in various phrases to express annoyance, contempt, or impatience.


  • Stringfellow! Stringfellow! Stringfellow! Who put that stringfellowing scaffold pole there? It just stringfellowed me in the stringfellowing head!




Vulgar slang

Origin: Middle English/Scottish/American/Lunar


vulgar slang

noun: trump; plural noun: trumps

  1. a woman’s genitals.
  2. an unpleasant or stupid person.


  • He’s a total stringfellowing trump. I mean, I’m a trump, you’re a trump, but he’s a complete trump.
  • That mortar’s as dry as a nun’s trump

For extra emphasis, trump can be used as a verb, for example:

  • He’s as nutty as a trumping fruitcake

If you want further examples, just give me a call. I’ll put you on speakerphone and just carry on about my business.

And mother, if you’ve read this far, I’m really really sorry. I’m putting a hook in the wall this evening.


The (Hi-viz) Cloak of Invisibility

A long time ago, I found myself working in an office with a go-getter of a manager, the sort of person who had a clear plan of how his life needed to work out in order for him to feel successful. It was so well planned, in fact, that he actually had a piece of paper that personal development coaches would drool over: degree from first class university, management trainee role, directorship role by age 30, partnership/owner of agency by 35, etc etc. It was so ambitious, that I think by the time he was 50 he was planning to be leader of the free world. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t got there yet (I just checked on Linkedin), but then again I don’t think he’s hit 50 yet either, so who knows.

I mention this because in the context of such an organised plan for life, the rest of us might have a bit more of a haphazard approach to where we end up spending our working time. I can’t remember, for example, the last time I ever looked at a job, and applied for it, thinking it would help me along a particular axis of achievement. What’s happened in my life so far has been a process of take on a job, do it for a while, and just as I’m getting bored, or incompetent, or both, someone kindly comes along and offers me something more interesting.

Which is what happened about a year ago. After spending most of my working days in a corporate office environment, it was time for a break, and I left, with no particular plans for the future. Pretty much as the door was closing behind me, I got a call from my (soon to be ex) boss, who was thinking about writing an autobiography, and was after some assistance with fact checking, editing, proofing and all the sorts of things that you need to do in order to get a book published. Which, incidentally, neither of us had a clue about. Seventy shades of fun ensued, getting familiar with all manner of new ways of working, getting a reader ticket to the British Library, spending hours looking through microfiche in dusty basements, speaking to incredibly bright and interesting people who thought little of talking to me between celebrity cookery shoots and the lost archives of PG Wodehouse, and finally holding a finished product in my hot and sweaty hand. Hot and sweaty, largely because I collected it directly off the press, which was a thirty mile cycle ride away.

Then, only a few hours after the hangover of the launch party had cleared, I got a phone call – a friend of a friend was running a construction project, and needed a bit of assistance organising stuff, making sure documentation hung together, and generally to keep him on the straight and narrow. (This, incidentally, is a more detailed job description than anything I’ve received since taking the job on. The benchmark for my continued employment is in line with the only two questions actually asked at my interview – ‘Are you reasonably organised?’ – ‘Yes’ and ‘Are you going to wind everyone up because you’re a complete arsehole?’ – ‘No’). So I said yes, on the condition that at any point (possibly when yes and no above got reversed), we could shake hands, I could walk off the site without having my lunchbox filled with mortar, and go back to wearing a suit and going to meetings for a living.

Anyway, the first couple of weeks went pretty well, so did the first couple of months and before I know it, I’m actually really enjoying myself, learning a ton of new stuff, meeting completely brilliant people, and being part of something that builds something really tangible, that people will enjoy living and working in. And there are bucketloads of lessons to be learnt in both directions between the people who put buildings in the air and people who (say) run projects in corporate environments. There’s stuff about governance, control, project management, people management, partners and suppliers that’s just itching to be written down…but that’s for a future blog. Because this one is about something really specific about working on a building site, that hit me in the face within hours of starting.

When you work on a site, you’re issued with, according to your health and safety rules, personal protective equipment, or PPE. This means you are supposed to wear, at all times, steel toecap boots, a high visibility vest, and a hard hat, plus all sorts of other exciting stuff like ear defenders, gloves, goggles, masks and harnesses, depending on the work you’re supposed to be carrying out, or if you’re headed for the Thursday Fetish night at the Loft (handily positioned just round the corner from our site).

And because you put this stuff on in the morning, if you leave the site, to get some milk or get some plans printed, or top up the unnerving amount of loo roll that seems to be being used up on a daily basis, you keep it on. So as you’re wandering along a street, humming gently to yourself, saying hello to someone you vaguely know, smiling benignly at young parents with difficult toddlers, holding the door open for somebody coming out of a shop, and…. Nothing. Absolutely nothing happens.  You wear boots and a high viz jacket, and the world will summarily ignore you. The security experts of the world call this ‘hiding in clear site’, and apparently it’s all the rage if you want to bypass checks at festivals, nick equipment from offices or get up to any other sort of activity where no-one will look at you. Which is all very well, but a bit odd when you’re not used to it happening.

A couple of weeks after I started on the site, I was buying a coffee from the cafe nearby, actually in the process of handing over the money and getting my change, when a woman pushed right in front of me and ordered a ‘skinny soy latte to go and could you please hurry as I’ve got a terribly important meeting’. I genuinely had to reach around her to get my change; I can’t believe she didn’t see me there, but clearly I didn’t matter in the great skinny soy latte scheme of things. A few days later, I had to go to a meeting, and was wearing a suit – I went to the same cafe, got the same coffee, had a similar pleasant chat, and turned to see an orderly queue formed behind me.

A month or so later, I was walking into town, and saw a friend I’d not seen for about a year. We were walking towards each other, I threw my arms out, and this is what happened:

  • she saw a bloke in a high viz jacket heading towards her with his arms outstretched
  • she noticeably flinched, and swerved slightly to her left to avoid contact
  • noticing that this hadn’t deterred the bloke, she forced herself to look up at his face
  • thankfully she recognised bloke and swerved back into position

And I think that’s pretty much what happens all the time. People see the high viz jacket (it is, after all, doing a fairly good job in drawing the eye). As soon as they do, there’s a negative reaction that, at best, might be ‘this person doesn’t matter to me’. So they look straight past, possibly scanning the horizon for stuff that does actually matter.

All of which is a bit of a shame. Hiding in clear sight may be quite the thing for today’s modern criminal, but it’s very disappointing when it interferes with the morning coffee run.

Next time – why everything you’ve ever learnt about project management is wrong. Or something like that.

I’m just popping out to get coffee.

If you see me, don’t forget to wave.

Like that’s going to happen.





Commuting for Dummies

Firstly, gentle reader*, apologies. I promised that I’d be writing blogs pretty much non-stop in 2016, and I seem to have missed that target fairly dramatically since April. In the spirit of ‘plan, say what you’re going to do, then do it’, which is the sort of anodyne nonsense that I might lay down in front of my children, I’ve managed to completely miss the mark.

And it’s not that there hasn’t been much to write home about. In the past, The Emu has brought you news on a) The state of dogs in the Emu household, b) being a parent, c) the joys of spending as much as possible of your life in France, d) the joys of running e) the not quite matching joys of cycling, f) the state of the music industry g) the world of employment, h) the state of the glorious car crash of Norwich City’s footballing existence, and i) the state of the world as we know it. And pretty much all points from a) through i) have needed some sort of commentary in the last six months.

To save me and you the bother of a really long update, however, this is the very quick summary from Emu towers:

  • a) Teenage angst continues against a backdrop of loveliness and barking
  • b) Teenage angst continues against a backdrop of loveliness and mortality
  • c) Not currently relevant
  • d) Completely knackered
  • e) Hills in June were fun and scary; Velodrome in August, more fun & more scary
  • f) Beginning to think that anything produced after 1979 was a bit of a waste of effort
  • g) Not currently relevant
  • h) Surprisingly positive, although currently holding my breath until Newcastle away on Wednesday
  • i) Completely knackered

That’s us all up to date then, eh. Maybe some more on those later if you’re interested.

Or if I am. Because there’s been so much chopping and changing of late that it’s meant a bit of what analysts might call self-reflection. You get to a point in your life when a)-i) (or their equivalents) are the things that define you, then they all change, or fall away, and you kind of wonder what definition to your life is actually left. Which is far too deep and self-absorbed for this blog, but just so as you know, it’s currently all kicking off on the reflection front.

Meanwhile, and in a fairly convoluted way, I’m going to spend a few words on g), if you’ll humour me. At the end of July, I left my job. I didn’t have anything to go to, it just felt the right thing to do, and there wasn’t really a role where I thought I could make a difference any more. So off I went, waving goodbye to some quite wonderful people whose company I really enjoyed, and who it’s unlikely I’ll see again much in the future, if at all.  I’ve worked with some of these people for over twenty years, and we got to my last Friday, and at 3pm, lots of smiling faces surrounded my desk (and blocked any potential exit path). A short, kind and embarrassing speech was made. A long, rambling and embarrassing response was made. Hands were shaken, promises made, and lots of us went off to the pub, where drinks were bought, and I tried (and failed) to tell people that working together had made a brilliant difference to me. Which it had. And by 11pm, having reached a state which Private Eye used to call ‘tired and emotional’, it was pretty much time to call it a night. And in an unusual reversal of roles, and one which I just know is going to rebound on me very soon, I was accompanied home by my 18 year-old son who, sober as a judge, watched on benignly as his father pedalled furiously home. And I woke up the next day, without too much of a morning head, and started wondering what to do next, and thinking about the people and the conversations I was going to miss the most.

It’s all a bit weird, and I need to sort out, bit by bit, what to do next on the working for a living front, and how best to do it.

One thing that really is important to the future is the degree to which I travel to, from and for work. In the past, my criteria was that any job I took on needed to be at a place that I could run, or, at a stretch, cycle to, each morning. When my main office moved from an office two miles from my home in Norwich, up to Newcastle, this made the challenge a stretch too far. Being injured (see d) above), means that the commuting radius is dragging inwards, but as it happens I’m currently doing some work that necessitates sitting at a table for several hours at a time; this specific table being in my shed at the top of the garden. So, currently, my morning commute takes about 60 seconds in good weather, assuming the dog isn’t planning to ambush me en route.

And if anything, as far as a commute goes, that’s a little bit too short. I know, I know, some people just can’t be satisfied can they? After all, I’ve spent much of the last thirty (and practically all of the last five) years complaining about business travel, and now I’m whining on about not having enough of it. But, in my defence, all I’m trying to flag is that sometimes that routine, and gap between home and work, can be a great time to set yourself up for the day, or evening, depending on which way you’re travelling.

I spent a brilliant weekend last month with my parents; two of the kindest, smartest and funniest people I know. I’m not just saying that because they’re my parents, they just really are all of those things at once – I reckon I can do, at a push, two out of three of kind, funny and smart at any given time, but never all three at once. Like all families, we tell stories, and my mum was telling me about her morning commute with my dad in the 1950’s. They both had jobs that meant driving to the railway station each morning, and to do this, my dad had bought a Morris 8 ‘Tourer’. I think the word Tourer, meant ‘without roof’, so my mum had to borrow (and break) her landlady’s sewing machine to make a roof for it. The car also featured a battery that discharged itself overnight, so had to be bump started each morning. This all sounds a bit of a nightmare, but I’ve seen a picture of the car and, despite all of the above, the rusting running boards and the sheer impracticality of owning it, I still can’t believe they sold a thing of such great beauty. Apparently they had to do so in order to buy a pram to transport my elder sister about in, so I’ve mentally laid the blame at her door ever since.

Anyway, back to their morning commute. My dad, apparently, as the one who knew how the car worked (and who knew how to drive), would sit in the driver’s seat, and my mum would start pushing, an exercise which wasn’t really helped by her office shoes having a fashion-conscious 3” heel. Slow progress would be made, until around the corner would walk a smart middle aged man in city clothes, wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella. Without a word, he’d place his hat and umbrella on top of the car, push along with my mum until the motor engaged, retrieve his hat and umbrella, and continue his walk to work. This would have been odd in itself, but apparently it happened every day, without a word being exchanged, for a number of weeks, until my dad finally got the starter motor fixed (or bought a pram, I’m not sure which happened first).

I was reminded of this story earlier this week, when I had the first commute for over a month, down to London for the day. To start with, I wasn’t quite sure what to wear. I had a half day conference with some IT Director types in the morning, followed by an afternoon where I had to be approved for a British Library reader’s pass, followed by a few hours where I needed to look and behave like a serious researcher. To add to the sartorial dilemma, I had to cycle to the station and back. I’d had a similar problem the week before, when I’d done some work up in York for the day, returning back just in time to get to see the mighty Canaries just about hang on to a 2:1 win mid-week against a very average Wigan side. I was still wearing suit and tie in the stands, and at half time got a load of abuse from a complete stranger – “what, are you f’ing selling f’ing stocks and f’ing shares” he snorted at me as he pushed by to the pie stand, giving an excellent example of what passes for wit in Norfolk. Anyway, I opted this morning for a linen suit, to compromise the cycle/seminar/library dilemma, with a lively blue and white checked shirt to appeal to the IT Directors. I teamed (as Trinny and Susannah would no doubt say) this outfit with some brown DM shoes, partly because I knew that most of the IT directors were from the public sector. Honestly, you might not think it, but a lot of thought goes into looking an uncoordinated mess for the modern man, and even more impressive when you think that this was all put together at 0530, in the dark, as I’d managed to get a cheap ticket to London on the 0624 train.

Anyway, these are all the social interactions I had on the journey: Said hello to the ticket collector at Norwich. A nod to the train guard when I got on the train. An ‘excuse me’ to my fellow commuter as I got up to get a cup of tea. A cheery hello to the lady who makes the tea on the buffet car, and several good mornings to the group of people who make it their business to treat the buffet car as a non-alcoholic standing room only pub at 0700 in the morning. A quiet chat with an old friend who I used to work with. A thank you to the ticket collector in London, as the new ‘ticket free’ mobile ticket isn’t recognised by any of the automatic barriers. A resigned smile to the owner of the armpit I was pressed up against on the Northern line. A good morning to the receptionist at the hotel where the conference was.

In most cases, I got a bit of a good morning back. Which was nice, but, on reflection, not really enough, because as I walked down the stairs to the conference room, I looked down and noticed that my flies had been undone since I’d left the house that morning. Worse, there was a lively piece of blue and white checked shirt, literally flagging the fact that they were open.

I mentioned earlier about the conversations that I was going to miss, now that I was no longer at work. As it goes, ‘Your flies are undone’, seems like an odd one to miss, but, I thought, as I made the necessary adjustments before walking in to the meeting, quite important.



* I’m in the shed. Will be down in 5 minutes, ok?

Good Technology

(For the article on ‘Whatever happened to the Red Guitars’, check back later. They’ll be filed next to ‘Kissing The Pink’ in an article on ‘Why The 1980s Was Actually Quite A Good Time For One Hit Wonders Now I Think About It’. Or something like that….)
I’ve worked in technology, or somewhere near it, for pretty much all of my adult life. And, insofar that you can love something that’s essentially a terribly complex twist of cable and metal and silicon, I absolutely love it.
My first job involved coding on mainframes, and my finest hour was the completion of a project that delivered two green screens to process car insurance changes for Foreign Use. Without a trace of irony, the screens were called FU1 and FU2. It was really neat because we produced something that automated a really painful process, and the process of pulling these screens together was considered something of a dark art, which made us feel pretty special.
Later on I progressed to networks (computers could talk to one another – awesome!), then applications like word processors (no more Tipp-Ex!) and email systems (which, on reflection, may have been where it all went wrong).  More of this another time, but, suffice to say, it was a fabulous period in technology, and some of us were lucky enough to be riding a pretty big wave.
Or so we thought, until a really big wave came along and we found ourselves talking about third generation languages, relational databases and smart ways of delivering business solutions. Suddenly we could start plugging in technology that looked and felt cool and didn’t have to take two years to deliver. What a wave!, we thought, as we tried to ride it.
Then another couple of really big waves came along, one called personal computing, and another called the Internet. And suddenly technology was everybody’s friend, and it was ok to come out of the closet and say that you loved this stuff, without sounding like too much of a nerd.
Then we got apps that everyone could write, complete interconnection, cloud services, mobile applications, (relatively) safe payment systems, online music and a glorious jumble of technologies that made you excited and proud to line up with. Technology is now both good and cool.
But, you’re no doubt be asking, is the coolest and best use of technology that the Emu has ever seen during this glorious 30 year relationship. Well, I’ll tell you…
Last weekend included a Saturday night that neither Mrs E nor myself were particularly looking forward to. We had given in to Jr Emu#3’s longstanding request for a 17th birthday party, and, worse even, had conceded that there’d be no better place to hold it than at our house. Frankly, Mrs E and I both needed our heads examined.
Anyway, it wasn’t toooo bad. They were all lovely kids when they arrived, and even after a couple of illicit hooches they were all quite charming, with a couple of notable exceptions. I (& I hope #3) will remember for some time his parents unblocking a vomit filled sink with one of the guests permanently attached to the toilet. Delightfully, when one of the more sober party goers asked if our guest was ill because he hadn’t had anything to eat, Mrs E was able to describe his last meal in some detail, including specifics on both pasta and sauce type.
But I haven’t told you the best bit. I’d asked #3 to pull together a Spotify playlist on his phone, which he did, and I’d provide the amplification, which I did. And we plugged in for a quick trial and all was well. His tunes were, as the youngsters say these days, bangin’. All was well, albeit a little annoying when his chums found the volume button, as the party ramped up.
Meanwhile, #3’s two older brothers, currently 6,500 miles away, almost on the other side of the world, were enjoying a quiet coffee in a cafe in Buenos Aires, as you do. And this cafe had wifi. Did I mention that we all use the same Spotify account? Well, we do. And because we do, and because it did and because they were, they were able to not only see what was playing, but to take over the phone and play their own choice of, well perhaps, less bangin’ tunes.
And so it was, with the party in full swing and some sort of ridiculous dubstep/trance/ rap nonsense making its noisy way down to our kitchen (where Mrs E and I were sat, largely occupied with directing pissed up 17 year olds to the toilet), that we heard the unmistakeable first few bars of ‘Fun Fun Fun’, certainly one of the high points of ‘The Cat In The Hat’ film soundtrack.
Separated by hemisphere and ocean and connected by unknown servers, satellites, undersea cabling and networking applications that are too cool to even describe, four of us are cracking up like you wouldn’t believe. Admittedly, it’s a return to a low form to basically point and laugh at #3 on his birthday party, but, all the same, it made us very very happy. Good technology? I should cocoa.

Reach Out (I won’t be there)

After a brief sojourn to talk about the joys of dog adolescence and men in tights, the Emu is back to what I think it does best.

That is, to get completely wound up about the minutia of life in a middle-class way that stops just short of calling in to the Today programme. Or writing to The Times. I’m not actually sure what I’m personally just short of, as I’d never entertain the idea of  doing either of those things, but I’m certainly just short of something. Or I might be at the end of a tether, but then getting to the end of your tether is presumably the bit just before you let go and fall off, and that’s not it. This is more like the bit just before you fold your arms, tip your head back and Tsk loudly, before you announce that the world has just gone to hell in a handbasket.

Which, in itself, is the bit that’s scarily close to buying the Daily Mail or reading UKIP pamphlets seriously, and, as we all know, that way madness lies.

Where was I?

Well, I was going to have a bit of a pop about some of the language that is beginning to, as they say, grind my gears. Every now and again, there seems to be a bit of a resurgence of the sort of language, particularly in business, that really doesn’t mean anything, but which everybody seems to embrace. Actually, the word embrace is a good example. When I started work, (which, according to my children was some time around 1863), the idea of ’embracing’ an idea would just sound…stupid. Embracing is something that a gentleman might do with his wife in an upstairs room with the lights off, thankyou very much, or possibly something you did with a tree a few years later if your name was Swampy. But not, no, and never ever conceptually in the workplace. Ridiculous. And yet sometimes I feel that I can’t move at work for people embracing ideas or concepts or challenges.

So, here are three pops I’d like to have about modern business language:

1. Reflecting

For example: ‘I’ve been reflecting on our last conversation’.

Have you? Or is this just a pretentious way of replacing the word ‘thinking’. Unfortunately reflection summons up self-reflection summons up self-help summons up hippie free thinking. Man.

It’s just twaddle. And it should stop.

2. The Journey

For example: ‘I’d like to tell you about my personal journey here today’ or ‘This project will be a fascinating journey for all involved’

Actually no. Your personal journey here today was, very possibly, a bus and a walk. And this project, even if it is completely fascinating, will remain…a project. Again, the problem is that it’s the wrong word because it’s too blimmin’ pretentious for its own good.

3. Reaching Out

For example: ‘I’ll reach out to Fred and see if he can help’, and ‘Fred, I’m keen to reach out to you for some input’.

Fred, and anyone else in their right mind, should put the phone down as soon as they heard the word reach. Or possibly evidence the other meaning of the word.

Reaching out should only ever be used in a business context when, six sheets to the wind on a works night out, you stumble into a Karaoke bar and pretend to be Levi Stubbs:


Note, this should never be attempted sober and, ideally, never mentioned by your colleagues subsequently. Unless you’re gainfully employed in an job that encourages matching white suits, close harmonies and natty dancing during meetings. (I simply can’t tell you how happy I would be to work in an office like that.)

Look, if we all work together we can rid ourselves of this nonsense. Next time someone uses one of these words, cough discreetly and ask if they wouldn’t mind, well, winding their neck in. And if we stop the rot now, none of us need ever look wistfully at the Daily Mail again.

Bullets for my baby

As with last week’s posting, this is a blog I’ve written for work, but as it’s not going to be published until December, and as it’s about something that’s going to happen this weekend, I thought I’d bung it up here now, with a few tactical edits…

I’d like to start, if I may, with three pieces of paper fixed to the wall next to my desk.

The first is a picture of Steve Prefontaine, probably the greatest American distance runner that never was, and the first ever rock star athlete. He had proper All-American good looks, he was incredibly gifted as a runner, he pretty much inspired Bill Bowerman to invent Nike, and just before his life could get to be in the least bit ordinary, he turned his sports car over after a party, and created an even bigger legend. Any footage you see of him running not only show a mop of shaggy blond hair bouncing up and down as he effortlessly leads from the front, but also a full moustache. It’s very rare that you see anyone these days who looks good with a moustache, as you’ll witness if you spend any time in any office building in the last week of November, but Steve Prefontaine was always something of an exception. Anyway, his picture is on my wall to remind me that the best runners don’t bother to look behind them.

Next to that is a copy of a cartoon from the Eagle, showing Alf Tupper, the ‘Tough of the Track’. The Eagle was a comic that celebrated all things British, in that post-war period when Britain was pretty much on top of its game, and you couldn’t get much more fantastical than the fictional story of Alf Tupper. Born on the wrong side of the tracks, Alf’s natural athletic ability ran into bad luck on a weekly basis, often because he was running against cheating ‘toffs’ or evil German milers. Deprived of any decent training conditions, Alf had to work sixty hours a week as a welder to make ends meet, and lived entirely on a diet of fish suppers. One of these days, I’m going to start a running club called the ‘Alf Tupper Harriers’. For full membership, you’ll have be a fully qualified welder, be capable of running under four minutes for an imperial mile, and prove to the admissions secretary evidence of a chips only diet for a given four week period. Unfortunately, I’ll be ineligible to join on all but one of the entrance criteria, so will have to settle for bronze membership.

And the third piece of paper is an email to my wife from a couple of months ago. The domestic arrangements in the Emu household are such that we end up emailing and texting each other quite a bit, in lieu of ever being in the same place at the same time. It’s an interesting challenge this, as I spend so much of my life writing emails at work, that it’s easy to mix up your styles. For example, Mrs R has never really forgiven me for sending her a link with a message of ‘FYI’. And I’m pretty sure I once sent an email to my boss with three x’s after my name, although it’s never actually been mentioned.

Anyway, this is an email that I sent in May, just off the back of yet another marathon that really could have gone a bit better. If I’d sent it to someone at work, it would have had four distinct, direct and punchy bullets, and, possibly due to the confusions above, it had four distinct, direct and punchy bullets:

“Dear Natasha*
– I’d like to take you to Budapest in October
– this is the hotel we’re going to stay at (link to expensive hotel)
– and on the Sunday afternoon we can go to Margetsziget and watch the well heeled Hungarians walk their Vizsla puppies**
– the only catch is that I’d like to run the Budapest marathon on the Sunday morning
What do you think?
K x”

Well, to my surprise, I got a reply within about half an hour:

“Yes. Do it!”

To be honest, I was expecting a little more negotiation. Mrs E/Natasha is tolerant of most of the whining and moaning that’s associated with marathon running, but tends to draw the line where it impinges on any child-free weekends. But, always one to follow a direct instruction from my little Soviet double agent, I booked the flights and hotel that evening.

When I got home a few days later, I mentioned how chuffed I was that she’d agreed to the weekend. She seemed a little surprised that I was surprised, and after a bit of skirting around the issue, asked what bloody marathon I was blathering on about. Switching seamlessly from doting and grateful husband into full defensive mode, I tried the obvious line:

“Didn’t you read the email?”

“Yes, but not after the bit about the dogs. I lost interest after that.”

So, the email is next to my desk, for two reasons. Firstly to remind me to get a bit of a wiggle on with some training, otherwise I’ll have another embarrassing, cramp ridden marathon, albeit one with a nice walk watching some little Hungarian puppies afterwards.

And secondly to remind me how to communicate with people. If I can’t hold my wife’s attention after three points on reasonably interesting subject matter, it’s fairly unlikely I’m going to do more with some of the slightly, err, drier, topics that I might have to cover at work, for example.

So my top tips are:
– never have more than three points
– make it interesting to the reader
– make it direct and to the point
– feel free to ignore this one

I’m off now. Got a plane to catch with Natasha. TTFN.

* Not her real name, but I’m trying some options out. Gives her a bit of cold-war glamour, no?
** This is not a euphemism. But appreciate it might need a bit of explanation some time.

I’m Mandy*, Fly Me

I vividly remember the first time I flew on an aeroplane. I was 11 years old, and I was despatched to Rawalpindi, to visit my uncle, aunt and cousins. Exotic, huh? By far and away the most exciting event of my life, and travelling alone gave it a level of wide eyed wonder that I wish I could have bottled and kept forever. In contrast, my last flight, on an admittedly less glamorous trip, was rather less exciting. It was really just an exercise in getting from A to B, with all the attendant long queues, intrusive security checks, last minute rush to the gate, cramming into a seat and hoping that the whole exercise would just be over with before the noxious fumes of my fellow passengers took over completely.

Given that almost 40 years separate these two journeys then it’s hardly surprising that things have moved on a tad in the airline industry, not least to what the marketeers no doubt describe as the ‘customer experience’. Let’s face it, air travel has fundamentally changed, from the most thrilling and special experience you could possibly imagine, where everything about the journey felt geared towards you, to an exercise in unsuccessfully minimising the many hassles that you have to deal with. Added to which, in these enlightened eco-sensitive times, there is lots of guilt to mask any pleasures that you might have hopelessly been hanging on to.

Which brings me to the current challenges that BA and its much maligned cabin crew have been having in the last few months. With apparently very little reference to the ‘customer experience’, the series of strikes, combined with the already challenged air schedules, have made BA a bit of a joke for travellers, and I suspect that, following the debacle around Terminal 5 and various pricing shenanigans, that this latest story means that people flying BA will be those who have to fly BA, rather than those who have any choice in the matter.

So, given that it’s all gone in that direction, why? BA has lots of good routes, an excellent safety history, and pretty reasonable record in getting large groups of travellers to the right place on time. Most of the time these days the baggage goes to the right place as well.

My theory would be that the airline has just lost its way since the halcyon days of air travel. When you get on a BA flight, it feels like you’ve stepped back to the 1970’s, insofar that it ought to feel special, but it doesn’t. Most other airlines have recognised that it ain’t going to feel that special anymore, so they don’t really bother. And part of the problem, frankly, is the cabin crew, who have, ahem, grown up with BA. So the “special” bit is delivered by crew who, frankly look and behave as if they’ve seen it all before. Which they probably have**.

In contrast, the budget airlines put people in the air who know that their role is to give you the safety talk, not deal with any flak, and generally get the trip over as painlessly as possible, not least for themselves. These (young) staff know exactly what they’re getting into; there’s no glamour to this – at Ryanair they even pay for their own uniforms. And this is a million miles away from the image of air crew in the 60’s and 70’s, where, without blushing, a pouting stewardess would appear on an ad to say to the business traveller “I’m Mandy, Fly Me”. (Technically, I think this is somewhere between a double and a single entendre.)

Meanwhile, the BA management hold out against the unions in a manner reminiscent of the standoffs of the winter of discontent, and that seems a bit out of time. And, the cabin crew complain of being ill equipped, badly paid, put into difficult circumstances and unhappy with their uniforms. Which, given that these are much the same complaints being sent back from the military in Afghanistan, means that they’re also completely out of touch. Both sides are completely losing any public sympathy, which I would have thought, given the circumstances, that they should really be craving.

I’d really like BA to be a good airline. I just wish it would grow up a bit.

*Other names are available. Evening and weekend rates apply.

**I’m acutely aware that this is about the 4th sentence in this blog that is grammatically horrible. My favourite ever line from ‘Just A Minute’ was when Nicholas Parsons asked Clement Freud “Who would you most like to be shipwrecked on a desert island with?”. To which the great man replied: “Almost anyone who didn’t end a sentence with a preposition”. So, sorry.

Joining The Norwich International Brigade

I genuinely don’t like travelling on aeroplanes, and I really hate going from Norwich Airport. Most people I speak to feel the same…so let’s start with a stab at a top 5 peeves:

1. Norwich Airport charges £5 a pop…to use the airport. That’s in order to go through security into the departure lounge. Does any other airport do this? Actually yes, the massive commercial enterprises that are Knock, Waterford and Newquay airports. Now, only a cynic would say that these charges are simply there to attract ‘cheap’ flights.

2. Every time, and I mean every time, I go through security I get searched. Not quite as dramatically as last year in Schipol airport where I was, quite frankly, cupped, but still an early morning frisking I’d rather not have. And, while I’m on the subject, if I’m going to carry anything metallic onto a plane that’s a security risk, am I really going to put it through a metal detector?

3. I don’t use the car park, so I don’t really have a beef there, but don’t you think it’s a bit odd that airports are built on the outskirts of cities, yet the cost of parking is more than most inner city car parks? How does that get justified, other than because it can happen? And how does that make it right? And if you book a taxi, they have to wait outside the airport for you to call them, as they only get 5 minutes inside before they start getting stung as well.

4. The fact you can’t make your way into departures without going through the Eastern European style gift shop. Which is unmanned. And whilst well stocked with exorbitantly priced travel sweets and hilarious ‘bluffer’s guides’ books, does nothing for me about my life, as Morrissey might not say.

5. Cup of tea – £1.80. The fact you have to make it yourself – priceless.

But that’s far too easy, no? What would be harder/more fun would be a list of things to like about Norwich Airport?

1. Looking at the perspex box where confiscated items go to die. I enjoy this at any airport, and particularly enjoyed the box at Dublin earlier this year where there was a 5 foot long firework displayed. Again, hard to believe that anyone thought this would really work as hand luggage, but nowt so queer as folk and all that. Speaking of which, last summer, I noticed at Norwich, just before the weekly flight to Malaga, two confiscated tins of salmon. Which makes you wonder a) what sort of person considers tinned salmon as essential hand luggage and b) what sort of threat was actually posed to security…

2. Watching people shell out £5 for the airport development fee for the first time – hilarious!

3. There’s a ratio of around 1 staff per passenger. You may be ignored, but it’s not a bad ratio should you want a chat. As long as it’s not about the airport development fee. They don’t like talking about that.

4. There’s pretty much always somewhere to sit. The development fee has shelled out for a rather large lounge compared to the size of planes that go in and out of Norwich.

5. Norwich International. Words that go together like Polanski and childcare. The whole point of Norwich is that it is desperately non-international, so it’s all delightfully ironic to see the airport trying to be a hub of inter-continental travel, whilst all around is so incredibly domestic. More of this another time, but just be happy for now, that you can be in the car park of NIA and still not be able to see the terminal behind the smoking hut.

I’m Waking Up To Us

One of the many, many perks of my job is the opportunity to travel at unearthly hours of the day through and to some interesting places, and whilst doing so, sharing my personal space with a diverse collection of fellow travellers. Or as, I like to call it, getting the 6am train to London.

This prevents me with a bit of a challenge personally, as I can no longer justify an early night. This has something to do with wanting to eke out every second of the day, and partly because I’m quite keen on remaining married. Mrs Emu has firm views on bed-time. She requires at least 2 hours of child free time in the evening, whether it’s spent slumped in front of the TV or, as we like to still call it in our house, becoming elegantly wasted.

And of course, the problem with this is that the children, insist on getting bigger and staying up later. Already this year we have had to extend both the house and our fridge capability, and now it’s the sleeping habits. Emu#1, for example, is now on a curfew of 11pm, which, assuming he has any vague idea of time (you really need to meet him), means that by Mrs E’s rules we shouldn’t be hitting the hay till around 1am. All of which means that with a 5am start, the train journey is a grand opportunity to catch up on a few missed z’s.

And this has some splendid side-benefits. Starting my journey in Norwich, which is not particularly lively at that time of the morning*, means that I can pretty much guarantee a seat. As the train gets busier, as we rattle towards Diss, Ipswich, Stowmarket and Colchester, the seats fill up, by which time I’ve settled back and very possibly have a small stream of dribble coming out of the side of my mouth. And the nice thing is that I wake up in Liverpool Street, genuinely surprised at who I’m waking up next to. I like to think of it as being a bit like a student, but without the constant threats of herpes and poetic regrets.

Most of the time it’s a fairly ordinary awakening; usually another bloke in a suit, putting away his killer suduko for the morning**, but there have been two remarkable highpoints in the last few months:

Highpoint one was the tall, and frankly, rather attractive, woman in her twenties, who woke me up by tapping me on the shoulder and whispering very gently in my ear:

“It’s time for us to get off”

Well, I very never, as you might say.

And the second highpoint was the bloke I woke up to a few minutes before getting to Liverpool Street. Although the train was packed, I still appeared to have plenty of elbow room, and even allowed myself a little stretch. All was clear when he stood up to get his jacket – his right arm was missing.

So, in the rather unlikely event that either of these two are reading this, please feel free to sit next to me again – you were lovely to wake up to last time and I’m sure you’ll be again. As for me, I’m thinking of playing a little game next time. I’ll wake up, not open my eyes, yawn, say ‘Morning Darling’ really loudly, then turn to see who I’m next to. Why don’t you try doing the same? After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

*Norwich last ‘got lively’ in 1985, when NCFC got to the Milk Cup final. People still talk of it in hushed tones, as the day when the city rather let itself go.

**Why? Why? Why?