A word of Christmas warning!!

In early December 2006, Ken Norman, my co-director, decided it was time to start gathering together his Christmas decorations and, like so many people, he stores them in the attic of his home. To facilitate their retrieval, his step ladder was located, carefully erected and up he clambered. Just as he approached the top step, the ladder decided that then was as good a time as any to collapse and so it did. As Ken started his abrupt and totally unexpected downward journey, he instinctively grabbed the edge of his loft hatch. Big mistake. Instead of arresting his descent, he was slowed briefly whilst his shoulder dislocated and then he carried on down until he hit the floor, now in some considerable additional discomfort. The story of his shoulder’s relocation is grim. In fact, let’s not even think about it. The point is that when the ambulance arrived to take him to hospital, the crew congratulated him on being the first Christmas Decoration Injury of the Year. Apparently from 1 December onwards we fall out of lofts like lemmings over cliffs. Be warned!!

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ABS Unit Failure? Don’t panic!

Waiting for the outcome of an MOT Test always feels as bad, if not worse, than waiting for exam results.

Modern cars are so blasted complicated that the scope for failure seems to get greater and greater.  The ABS warning light on my trusty Volvo had been on for months and months suggesting (probably) that the ABS system was not functioning.  Since I have been on the roads for some 40 years this was not a concern because in the event of the wheels locking on a slippery surface, cadence braking would deal with the problem.

This point of view was not shared by the MOT man.  So with a fail notice and a heavy heart I visited my local friendly Volvo specialist.  He hooked up the diagnostic device which revealed, not surprisingly, that the ABS Master Unit had failed.  After much sucking of teeth and calls to spares suppliers, the bad news was delivered that a replacement would cost some £850 plus vat and fitting, so about £1050 in total.  Great.

Back home I decided to Google ‘Volvo V70 ABS units’  and up popped the website www.ecutesting.com who, it appeared, would refurbish my ABS Unit for £150.00+vat.  All I had to do was pop it in the post to them.  If you have opened the bonnet of your car recently you will appreciate that there are a heck of a lot of bits and pieces in there.  The question being, where is the ABS thing?  I Googled ‘Where is the ABS thing’ and so off to a website in The States to a business which also does refurbs.  They actually had detailed instructions and photographs which showed just how easy it was to remove.  3o  minutes later the component, about the size of two cigarette packets, was in the post to ECU Testing in Nottingham.  The next morning I received a call to tell me that it had arrived safely and was in the workshop.  The postman delivered it back to me the following day.  It was back on the car 30 minutes later, the warning light vanished and the car passed its MOT.  It passed its MOT for £172.50 rather than £1050.

I sent an email to ECU Testing thanking them for their brilliant service and received a very nice reply.  I sent an email to the Volvo Garage recommending ECU Testing and heard not a word.

My excursion into the world of ABS systems has revealed that they frequently fail and that the prices quoted to replace them are extortionate.  Before you spend a fortune, check out companies like ECU Testing who will refurbish most car related electronics for a fraction of the replacement cost and give a two-year guarantee.

Light Bulbs

Simple traditional incandescent light bulbs are being phased out to be replaced with complex florescent low energy light bulbs.  This is because traditional light bulbs also create a lot of heat. Low energy bulbs create a lot less heat. I use light bulbs mainly in the winter when it is cold and dark.  Traditional light bulbs help warm my house.  Low energy light bulbs don’t help warm my house.  To warm my house I will now burn more gas. Is it me?

DIY MOT? SOS!

Suppose you opened your newspaper today and read a headline that proclaimed “DIY MOTs!” Just suppose that the article went on to explain that in future car owners would be required to carry out their own annual MOT and write their own certificate.  I am guessing you would be surprised, perhaps concerned because maybe you don’t know much about cars and then very alarmed to think that you could be sharing the roads with some very dodgy vehicles.

What if the article went on to explain that the now redundant MOT testers would be redeployed to undertake spot checks on vehicles and, if the owner had not done the MOT or had not done it properly, large fines would be imposed?  How would you feel to read that, if the defects were deemed serious, your vehicle would be taken off the road?  Oh, and incidentally, if you did have an accident and faults were found, you would be held criminally liable, could go to prison and your insurance company would almost certainly refuse your claim.

My guess is that you would be pretty incensed and, given that MOT testers are rigorously trained and regulated, you would demand to know how you could possibly be competent to undertake an MOT yourself.  Well, worry not, because the Government had anticipated that problem and thoughtfully issued a book explaining how to undertake an MOT, complete with a tick list, easy!

Couldn’t happen?  Oh really.  Well, until the enactment of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, your local friendly Fire and Rescue Service would inspect your premises, advise you on how to make your premises fire safe and compliant and then issue you with a certificate.  A bit like an MOT really.

The Order changed all that and now every business in the UK is required by law to carry out and record a Fire Risk Assessment; act on the findings of the assessment and train all staff in basic fire safety.  What is more The Health & Safety Executive and the Fire & Rescue Service may carry out a spot check on your company at any time, and if you haven’t carried out (and recorded) a Fire Risk Assessment you will be breaking the law and liable to prosecution. Further more, an increasing number of insurance claims are failing because of non-existent or non-complaint Fire Risk Assessments.

 My guess is that you when you were told of these changes back in 2006 you were pretty incensed and, given that Fire Safety Engineers are rigorously trained and regulated, you demanded to know how you could possibly be competent to undertake a Fire Risk Assessment yourself.  Well, you didn’t need to worry because the Government had anticipated that problem and thoughtfully issued a book explaining how to undertake a Fire Risk Assessment, complete with a tick list, easy!

If only it were that easy.  The two things that scare me are firstly, that enormous numbers of business owners are completely unaware of this responsibility and so could be operating out of premises that are death traps and secondly, any person who is deemed ‘competent’ (and there is no definition of competent) can undertake a Fire Risk Assessment on anything from a corner shop to a shopping centre; on a care home, a hotel, a factory, in fact any premises caught under the Act and that is just about every building that you and I walk into every day.  You thought the MOT thing couldn’t happen?  Well, in terms of fire it has but too many people are unaware of the situation.

Naturally there are professional, highly trained experts who work in this field and help to ensure that the buildings that you and I visit every day are compliant and as safe as they can be.

As a business, we were so concerned when we came to understand the issues, that we have associated with a company that undertakes comprehensive Fire Risk Assessments, offers pragmatic solutions to overcome defects and reports to business owners in a pretty unique way.

The full story is on the website http://www.fcs-oxford.com/ .  Please check it out and please get in touch if you have any concerns about your premises, the premises that you occupy or premises that you visit.  Never has it been more important to say “Better safe that sorry”.

How to become Invisible

Back in the 1990s I discovered a way to become invisible, to speak and not be heard, to blend completely into the background and be totally ignored by people.  No magic cloak was required, no invisibility potion, it was much easier than that.

 After three years working in NatWest’s Skills Development Unit, running courses on subjects such as Presentation Skills, Train the Trainer, Training Skills Analysis etc. I was seconded to The Princes Youth Business Trust as Area Manager for South London.  My job was to promote enterprise to the young people of all the London Boroughs south of the Thames and inside the M25.  It was a great two years which really changed my outlook on life.

Our offices were above Evans fashion shop by Clapham Common tube station, reached through a short passage and rather uninspiring doorway.  We shared the space with a youth enterprise training company who ran business start up courses, so there was an excellent synergy there.  The courses meant that there was always a flow of young people in and out of the building.

Now, the front entrance was regularly used as a toilet at night time and the door itself had suffered several graffiti attacks which meant that the whole area was very unpleasant and not a good advertisement for the activities within.  So, when the manager of the training agency told me that they were all going away to a conference for two days, I resolved to do something about it.  Instead of the ‘smart casual’ wear that was my norm, I changed into an old pair of denims and trainers and an old sweatshirt.  With bucket, mop and scrubbing brush I took myself down the entrance and set to work.

As well as training, the agency helped people to develop their business plans and so students were encouraged to drop in to see the business advisers.  This day was no different and people were turning up and ringing the bell for the agency.  I would explain that they were all away at a conference and that there was no one to help them that day.  I was astonished to realise that at least 60% looked at me, looked at what I was doing, looked at what I was wearing and rang the bell again as if I did not exist.  Very humbling.

I have absolutely no doubt that if I had been dressed as I normally would, they would have listened to me, believed me and thanked me.  It taught me that the world is full of people as invisible as I was that day.  People we dismiss because of our preconceptions about them and what they do.

Ever since that day I have made a point of acknowledging and thanking those people who work to make our world work and I hope it makes their day a little brighter.

Pagan Ways and Pagan Days

Holy Trinity

Holy Trinity

The Barrow Stones
The Barrow Stones

There are probably not too many people in the world who pull back their curtains each morning and gaze into stone receptacles, even older than Stonehenge, that contained the bones of those who lived in the locality 5700 years before them. 

 Since the barrow stones lie next to the Church there is the fascinating contrast between the new monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the polytheism of the older faiths. I started to wonder about the old beliefs which set me on an interesting journey into the world of the Pagan for Paganism would have been their religion.

 A good start would be to define ‘Pagan’. The word comes from the Latin Paganus and was originally used by urban Romans to refer to country dwellers, people who preferred their local faith.  It was later applied to people who worshipped local deities, or people who practiced polytheism.

 There are many forms of Paganism, ranging from native shamanism to the sophistication of the Roman and Greek pantheons, but our local Pagans would have been profoundly influenced by the seasons of the year and the waxing and waning of the moon. Rather than going on bended knee to their all powerful deities, they worked with their Goddesses and their Gods to protect and treasure the land and the animals upon which they depended.  The earliest representations of deities are female with models of goddesses having been found which date from 35,000 BC and in the West it was not until some 1000 BCE that male gods started to become prevalent as societies became more structured and warlike and felt the need for warrior support rather than the nurturing of the Goddesses.

 Since there is no pagan ‘bible’ and no written record, much of what is known about their beliefs relies upon the oral traditions of the Norse/Germanic peoples who spread out across most of Europe.  The fascinating thing for me has been to realise that despite some 1600 years of Christianity, so many of the old traditions still exist and here a few of those that I have been able to gather to date.

 The days of the week:

 Sunday – named after: the sun

Monday – named after: the moon

Tuesday – name after Tiw (Tyr): God of battle and victory.

Wednesday – named after Woden/Wotan (Odin): Father and ruler of the Gods and mortals

Thursday – named after Thor: God of thunder and sky, and good crops.

Friday – named after Frigg (Friia): wife of Odin; great mother of the Gods.

Saturday – named after Saturn: god of fertility, agriculture, time.

 It is interesting that despite the days of the week having been Roman during the occupation, the old Goddesses and Gods Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frigg moved back in pretty fast when the Romans left!

 The Roman Gods did manage to hang to months of the year:

 January
Named after the Roman god of beginnings and endings Janus (the month Januarius).

February
The name comes either from the old-Italian god Februus or else from februa, signifying the festivals of purification celebrated in Rome during this month.

March
This is the first month of the Roman year. It is named after the Roman god of war, Mars.

April
Called Aprilis, from aperire, “to open”. Possible because it is the month in which the buds begin to open.

May
The third month of the Roman calendar. The name probably comes from Maiesta, the Roman goddess of honor and reverence.

June
The fourth month was named in honor of Juno. However, the name might also come from iuniores (young men; juniors) as opposed to maiores (grown men; majors) for May, the two months being dedicated to young and old men.

July
It was the month in which Julius Caesar was born, and named Julius in his honor in 44 BCE, the year of his assassination. Also called Quintilis (fifth month).

August
Originally this month was called Sextilis (from sextus, “six”), but the name was later changed in honor of the first of the Roman emperors, Augustus (because several fortunate events of his life occurred during this month).

September
The name comes from septem, “seven”.

October
The name comes from octo, “eight”

November
The name comes from novem, “nine”.

December
The name comes from decem, “ten”.

It is equally remarkable how the celebration of the old festivals and the traditions associated with them have also survived.

Yule is an ancient festival celebrated at the winter solstice around 21st December.  This is the shortest day and many religions celebrate the rebirth of life at this point as the days start to lengthen again and the hard days of winter start to pass.  It is a time of birth and hope and many pagans celebrate the rebirth of their God at this time.  Fir trees (the home of the woodland spirits in the wintertime) were brought into the house and decorated to join the celebrations.  The fairy on the top of the tree is said to represent the Goddess, whilst the shiny balls that we use today reflect back to the witch balls that were hung in windows to protect the home.  Mistletoe has long been a sacred and mysterious plant.  The Celts in particular revered it as the golden circles of mistletoe in the trees represented the rebirth of the sun.  The original giver of gifts was the God Woden who would ride through the sky in his wooden chariot bringing gifts to children.  The yule-log was dragged in with much ceremony and had to burn for the length of the festival to help the strenghtening sun to grow. 

Easter is another very significant celebration, named after the Saxon Goddess Eostre.  There is a legend that she came across a wounded bird and healed it.  Every year thereafter in gratitude the bird presented her with a gloriously decorated egg.  Eggs have always been associated with birth and they also reflect the power of the new moon. Eostre’s earthly form was that of a rabbit from which we get the Easter Bunny.  Even hot cross buns are said the represent a sacred circle marked with the four ponts of the compass and their associated elements of earth, air, fire and water.  All the changing seasons would have been celebrated as would the phases of the moon which play a vital part in Pagan ceremonies.  Full and new moons hold great significance and the date of Easter Sunday, the most important Christian festival, is still calculated as being the first Sunday after the first Full Moon on or after the Spring Equinox.

I have also discovered that so many words that we take for granted have their roots deep in ancient times.  Just one example comes from Sweden, where Halogaland County was named after Hel (Mother Earth), whom the Scandinavians worshiped as the one all-powerful source of life’s abundance and there is evidence from sculptures that she has been known to humanity for at least 25,000 years. They didn’t see any separation between this Goddess and themselves and because of this they all took names containing hers as a root-word (Helga, Olga, Ole), for self-identity was not of the greatest importance. There was no complicated mythology to believe in, unlike under later Viking-rule. Spiritual practice was simply the art of serving and living in harmony with the whole of the Goddess’ creation. A sacred place of communion with Hel was often near water, that embraces and flows through all, formless free and alive.  It seems likely that the present site of Holy Trinity was a sacred place by the river where those who were here before us came to meet their deities.

When the Vikings invaded Scandinavia they imposed their own deities and in particular created Valhalla, the home after death of warriors.  Hel, was then forced underground, to be considered a lesser goddess who took in women and men, who were not brave in battle, after their deaths and tended and cared for them until they were ready for reincarnation.  Helvete (Hell) later became the name of the Christian inferno of endless pain when the bible was translated into the Germanic Languages.

So far reaching was Hel that her name is reflected in Holland, Helvetica (Switzerland), Helas (Greece) and even England and Scotland – Albion and Alba respectively meaning both “offspring (bearn) of Hel”.  She is also the root of the now-English words, heal, holy, help, hail, hold, whole, all, elf, etc.

How remarkable that so much of the what we hear and see and do have their roots so very, very deep in the past.

Memoirs of an Investment Banker or how to be in two places at once

Way, way back in the mid 1970’s I worked at the National Westminster Bank in Chipping Sodbury as ‘Safe Custody and Foreign Clerk’.  Basically that meant that if you wanted to lodge your valuables in the bank safe, buy or sell shares, invest or withdraw from your Building Society or buy or sell foreign currency, I was your man.  Of course times were tough then.  We were suffering the secondary banking crisis, there was recession, inflation was rife, interest rates were high and there was shortage of mortgage funds.  Hmm… sounds a bit familiar.

 Anyway customers would call at my little window to seek my advice and my method of suggesting their investment strategy was pretty sophisticated.  At that time, all the Building Societies had representatives who visited the banks to tell people like myself about their interest rates etc.  They were all pretty desperate for funds to lend and so were keen to get me onside.  As a result, their visit was often followed by an offer of lunch, the quality of which they hoped would swing my opinion in their favour!  I remember that, back then, if you wanted a mortgage, you very often had to save the equivalent of your monthly repayment for a year to prove that you could afford them.

 Foreign currency for holidays was also very restricted and you were only allowed to take £50 abroad each year.  I had to record the amount taken in customer’s passports and then note any that they brought back.

 Chipping Sodbury was not a large office, although at that time there were some 22 of us working there and the camaraderie was splendid.  There were some real characters; my pal Tony who never started work until he had read his Racing Post and laid his bets for the day.   Chris, the Manager’s Assistant (who was also a Baptist minister) who smoked some evil herbal concoction is his pipe and Les, the Administration Manager who restored antique clocks (the safe was full of them) and who played the electric organ in the The Oak public house on Saturday nights for charity. 

 There always seemed to be something slightly wacky going on but one day in particular sticks in my memory. It was about 11.30am on a glorious summer’s day.  We had summers then.  All was quiet in the bank, flies buzzed lazily in the window and the aforementioned Les emerged from the Manager’s office.  “Right” he said, “It is Mrs Peterson’s funeral at 12.00 and the Manager wants the bank to be represented.  He’s told me to go but I am going to the pub so he’s said that you can go instead.  Just make sure that reporter from the paper gets your name as a mourner.”

 Now at that time (even as a bank clerk) I was a dedicated follower of fashion and no one had wider lapels, flarier flares or livelier floral kipper ties than young Tim.  “Oh no Les!” said I, “I can’t go to a funeral dressed like this!”  However, none of my entreaties would dissuade him and so, with a heavy heart and my jacket buttoned, I trudged down to the C of E as instructed.  It all seemed suspiciously quiet and when 12.00 had come and gone with no sign of a funeral, being an alert young man, it occurred to me that all was not well and I decided it best to trot along to The Oak to find Les and report my apparent failure.  The news was not received well with Les expressing the opinion, in fairly florid language, that the manager would be less than pleased with us.  I seem to remember ‘guts’ and ‘garters’ being mentioned.  “What’s the matter Les?” enquired a chap at the bar and the story was told.  “Ah, that’s where you’ve gone wrong,” said he, “the funeral was at the Congregational, you’ve missed it.  But, as luck would have it, I was the reporter on duty, so all we have to do is to add Tim to the list of mourners and keep him out of the manager’s way for a couple of hours.”  So that was the plan.  Beer was poured into me until 2.00pm (it may have been later) and I was smuggled out of the back of the pub so that I could approach the bank (rather unsteadily) from the correct direction.

 My name duly appeared in the newspaper and when the manager asked me later if all had gone well, I was able to answer, with complete honesty, that it was the finest funeral I had ever attended!  That is how to be in two places at once.