Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Mr. Prostate

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Note: of necessity, this post will deal with fairly intimate personal and medical matters. But if you are a male over the age of fifty, or know a male over the age of fifty who you care about, I’d encourage you to read on.

After I got back from Hay, it wasn’t that long before I got a potentially nasty reminder about the progress of Time’s Winged Chariot. I began to notice some discolouration in what General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove would have called one of his “vital bodily fluids”. I wasn’t in any pain, and I sort of assumed that this was probably the result of some sort of infection – I was feeling possibly one degree under the weather and was running a slight temperature – and it did clear up of its own accord after about ten days.

But two things happened after it cleared up. First, I became aware that my ability to produce a strong flow of urine had improved, which was a bit of a surprise because I hadn’t been aware of any problem in that area up until then. First it was OK, but then it got better. That’s a bit interesting.

Then I got a phone call from my doctor, asking me to go in to talk because my regular blood tests as a part of normal health screening had now shown up two successive PSA readings that were higher than normal. PSA – Prostate-Specific Antigen – is a protein produced by the prostate gland. Elevated levels of it can indicate a problem of some sort. Whilst the assumption that may be jumped to is that by ‘problem’ we mean ‘prostate cancer’, that is literally just an assumption. Statistically, 75% of high PSA readings are due to other causes. But 25% are not, and that’s too high a number to ignore.

So within a couple of days, I was having the conversation with my doctor, and he was telling me that he would be writing to the local hospital to refer me. What was really very heartening was that because of that 25% risk, the process would be fast-tracked and I should expect an appointment within two weeks.

It was actually closer to ten days from consultation to appointment; the letter itself arrived virtually by the next post. So it was that I had to make the journey to Leicester General Hospital, on the other side of the city to where I live.

The first appointment was fine; I saw a registrar (second-line consultant) who talked about case history (no previous history of prostate cancer in the family) and carried out a physical examination to check for any signs of testicular cancer (all clear); then he said that he’d still like to refer me to the consultant for a biopsy and endoscopy.

Again, everything moved fairly quickly, and soon I was going back to the General for the biopsy. For first-timers, this is the procedure that causes the most concern, because the process involves the surgeon using the endoscope to enter the body via the rectum and then penetrating the rectal wall to then snip small portions off the prostate gland itself. The process is done under local anaesthetic, and although there are no nerve endings in the prostate itself – one reason why for years prostate cancer was something that went undiagnosed until it was too late – if you start prodding it, you will feel something. I personally felt that the sensation was akin to that of using a hand-held stapler, and the pain was not as bad as having dental root canal work – except that the surgeon takes twelve samples during the process. I was also given a prophylactic antibiotic before the process, because (obviously) the route of entry is through possibly the most potentially infectious site in the body. In fact, the worst effects I had were nausea and dizziness from the antibiotic – oh, and the effects on my bowel of the invasiveness of the procedure.

I was told to expect results within two weeks and I would be called for a follow-up appointment. In fact, I never received the appointment; the first thing I knew was that I had a phone call from the hospital saying that I’d missed my follow-up. When I said I’d never received any appointment, which is why I’d missed it, I had a new appointment made there and then; again, for not too far away into the future. I assumed that this was going to be for a consultation with results.

Instead, when the confirmation letter arrived, I found that this was actually going to be for bladder endoscopy. Now, as a part of the Government’s “24-hour NHS” programme, this appointment was actually set for a Sunday morning, so off I went.

I saw the same consultant, who delivered the good news that the biopsies were all negative. Then we started the endoscopy. The camera – more accurately, the fibre-optic probe – is inserted through the urethra, this time with no anaesthetic; still not as unpleasant as a root canal, but certainly more so than the biopsy, especially as the end of the probe moves through the various sphincters that control urine flow. A few minute’s observation satisfied the consultant that there was nothing untoward to be seen; the camera was withdrawn, and it was “Thank you and goodbye” – the consultant was off through the door before I had time to gather any thoughts, leaving his assistants – two nurses, one male and the other female, to help me clean myself up and recover my composure. (Forget about my dignity. That went out of the window at the first consultation. And in any case, this is a bit like working on the production line at a chocolate factory, where they say you can eat as many chocolates as you like, secure in the knowledge that by the end of the first week, you’ll be sick of the sight of chocolate; you’ve got nothing that the health professionals haven’t seen before, and in any case, anticipation of the procedure tends to mean that impressing the ladies [amend as appropriate depending on your personal preferences] is pretty low on your body’s internal agenda and your physical manifestations respond accordingly…)

The consultant’s behaviour came as no surprise to me, as I’ve had quite a bit of professional contact with consultants in the past; they are dedicated individuals who are very focussed indeed on the condition they’ve specialised in; the patient is merely the conveyance that brings interesting cases to them. Once I’d proved to have nothing abnormal to be detected, I was of no more interest to the consultant and he was on to the next case. And I was fine with that. The consultant was personable enough before the procedure, and (just) polite enough afterwards. I took the immediate evaporation of his interest in me as a sign that he was a consultant of considerable experience and keen interest in his specialism, and that’s just what I’d want if things had turned out differently.

In retrospect, the worst thing about that visit was what happened next. Leicester General hospital is an old, sprawling establishment that has been added to a lot over the years; and as a result, I got lost trying to find my way out! I’d taken my sister’s advice to go and use the hospital restaurant for at the very least a hot drink to steady myself after the procedure; and it was in leaving the restaurant, which was off the direct route I’d followed from entrance to consulting suite, that I took a wrong turning. I then proceeded to wander around the hospital for a good thirty minutes, as the signage left a fair amount to be desired. What was more, with it being a Sunday, not all the out-patents’ departments were open, so some of the places I’d walked through on previous appointments were all locked and in darkness. I swear I walked past one bloke who was sat waiting twice…

Again, I had been supposed to attend a follow-up clinic a couple of weeks later, but never got an appointment letter, just a copy of the letter to my GP to say “Mr Day failed to attend my clinic on (date) and so I shall treat him as having discharged himself; but please note the results of his examination were…” I have to say that I did make a couple of telephone calls to complain about the tone of that letter when I had not received any letter or telephone call to tell me about that appointment; but that’s about the only complaint what I’ve got.

Britain’s NHS is the subject of massive political debate, both here and overseas. It is far from perfect in too many areas. It has to make compromises in decisions about funding and the allocation of resources. There are numerous instances of people who have legitimate cause to complain about the treatment they’ve received from the NHS. And it has to be said that the current Government’s long-term plans for the NHS are unclear about their direction of travel and the sort of NHS they want to see in the future. Many people do not trust the current Government with the NHS. Others believe that it needs to be swept away and replaced with a different model. Of course, the problem with that is how to get there from here. If we changed to a model based, say, on personal insurance paid over a working life, how do you continue to fund the treatment of those who won’t have time to pay sufficient into an insurance scheme before they need the services of the NHS, possibly in a very big way? Also, such schemes, especially those provided by employers, assume that you will stay with the same employer for a long period. Oddly, the people who advocate that system the most are often those who applaud the end of “the jobs for life culture” and promote the ideas of people – usually far further down the jobs ladder than themselves – having “portfolio careers”, or employers enjoying the “flexibility” to resize their workforces to match demand and supply (usually downwards). A moment’s thought will show that these are mutually exclusive objectives; but the politicians who make these sort of pronouncements work in the hope that no-one will ever notice that their ideas never join up.

And my experience of the insurance industry is that they will often try their hardest to avoid paying out on a claim. Anecdotal evidence I hear from the USA talks a lot about arguments with insurance companies over just what conditions are or are not covered by any particular policy, or at what point the insurance cover runs out.

All I can say is that I am glad that on this occasion, I was dealt with quickly, (mainly) efficiently, and with no other consideration other than getting me in front of a knowledgeable healthcare professional for a diagnosis. And my regular healthcare monitoring will be keeping an eye on this problem in future. This is what I pay my tax for, and given the seriousness of the situation if the diagnosis had not been so favourable, on balance I’m pleased that I do.

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Written by robertday154

October 16, 2017 at 10:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Hay in May

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack in May, we spent some time at the Hay Festival, which I’ve mentioned in previous years. The main attraction was to go and see Neil Gaiman, of American Gods fame, being interviewed by Stephen Fry.

In the science fiction and fantasy world, Neil Gaiman now has a considerable reputation as “the coolest guy in the room”. Best selling writer of novels, graphic novels and screenplays, Gaiman has an ‘in’ to almost any project he cares to name. He crops up as a guest writer on any tv show you care to mention that has a fantastic theme and any sort of cachet for originality. He is married to a bona fide rock star – Amanda Palmer, formerly of The Dresden Dolls – and can command superstar status wherever he goes. He was on the programme for Hay because he has a new book on Norse Myths out.

The appearance of any genre author at Hay is worth celebrating, as it happens so comparatively rarely, considering the position of genre literature in the book trade generally. Oddly, this year, Hay also had Cory Doctorow speaking, but that was on a day when we weren’t really able to get. But Gaiman is hardly treated as ‘genre’ these days;  being interviewed by Stephen Fry, usually considered to be a total A-lister, is quite a thing. It was worth seeing for that alone.

Because Fry’s attitude was ever-so-slightly one of his nose being out of joint. Here were a thousand or so people turned up not to listen to Stephen Fry. It must have rankled just a bit (though I’m sure he’d deny it). And then to rub matters in, Gaiman arranged for Amanda Palmer to come on and read from the Norse mythology book.

Otherwise, we were entertained for an hour or so by Gaiman talking about a world that Stephen Fry has little conception of, that of fantastic literature. I know Stephen Fry took up with Douglas Adams’ work way back, but a proper appreciation of Adams relied on his audience recognising the tropes Adams was satirising. Equally, for all the ‘mainstream’ success Gaiman now enjoys, many of the people I know who are enthusiastic about his writing have followed him for years, way back to his work with the Sandman comic book series. Meanwhile, Chris Riddell, the current Children’s Laureate and illustrator for some of Gaiman’s earlier works, including The Graveyard Book, Coraline and Neverwhere, did off-the-cuff illustrations to what was being said on stage, which were thrown up onto a huge screen at the back of the stage.

It did make me think about one thing, though. Very many of my friends in the science fiction fan community make a big thing about saying how they read widely across a range of writing, genre and non-genre alike (in contravention of the usual stereotype of a ‘science fiction fan’). I don’t make a big thing about this, though when my sister once accused me of reading ‘nothing but science fiction’, I trawled my library and found well over two hundred works of fiction that were not genre; and I’m far from atypical.

But we’ve been going to Hay for some ten years or more, and even when there’s been genre writers on the programme (most particularly, Terry Pratchett or Ian M. Banks), we’ve never bumped into anyone we know, even remotely or just by sight, from the UK science fiction fan community.  And we’ve been around that community for a very large number of years (I’m not allowed to say how many, especially if you combine our individual involvements!) and can claim pretty much to know a fair number of those involved. (I’m talking about proper science fiction fans here, the fans primarily of the written genre, which can trace its existence as a discrete genre and a fandom back to the 1920s.) Perhaps it might help the world of “literary fiction” if science fiction fans of the sort I mention were more in evidence at more literary events.

(I talked about ‘bumping into’ people at Hay. Cathy did once bump into the Archbishop of Canterbury there. Well, when I say ‘bumped into’, I mean more ‘shoulder charged’. One or the other of them wasn’t really looking where they were going, and I don’t think it was Rowan Williams.)

There is one big difference between science fiction conventions – of which I have written before – and something like Hay. A science fiction convention has all the out-of-pocket costs levied up front; you pay something like £50-60 for an “attending membership” of the annual Easter convention, which entitles you to attend all the events and to access the open areas of the convention (art show, dealers’ room etc.); the World Convention can cost something in the region of £75-150 to attend (all prices depend on how early you register). (Obviously, travel, accommodation and meals are on top of those prices.)

Hay, on the other hand, has a different pricing model. You can access the site free of charge; but then you have to pay up front for each event you want to attend; this can be between £5 and £35 depending on the likely popularity of the event or status of the author or performer. So you do have to review the programme and work out what events you want to see, how many you can afford to go to, and how you work out your travel and/or accommodation needs; and then you have to order your tickets reasonably early as some of the more high-profile events get sold out almost before the programme is fully announced.

One of the events I very much wanted to see this year was Chris Tarrant talking about his television series Extreme Railway Journeys. I had become quite taken with this for Tarrant’s down-to-earth approach, talking to railway workers and local citizens as equals rather than certain other celebrity tv railway travellers whose approach is a bit more patrician. The programme-makers’ choice of subjects was rather more eclectic: the Congo, Bolivia, Australia and other fairly far-flung destinations that require rather more effort to get to see than just booking a Eurostar ticket. And Tarrant was an excellent and personable speaker with a number of tales about the hazards of filming in some of the remoter corners of the world. When it came to Q&A at the end of the session, mine was about the only hand to go up in a fairly packed tent. Firstly, I said that my father had always said “Everything on the railway’s heavy except the pay packet”, and Tarrant was able to draw on that and talk about railway workers in particular whose dedication to the railway was a remarkable thing in this corporate day and age; these places had not forgotten what ‘service to the public’ actually meant. And then (seeing as no-one else was clamouring to ask questions), I added about the aforementioned other celebrity traveller, a well-known former MP. “Ah yes,” said Chris. “I bumped into him occasionally, though we were doing very different trips. He always looked as though he’d just left a five-star hotel where he’d dined well on cordon bleu cuisine and fine vintage wines” and added that the Other Celebrity Traveller seemed to have a rather condescending air to him on these occasions. “But don’t you sometimes wish you were “him”?” I asked. The answer was a very emphatic “NO”. Chris Tarrant very much enjoyed seeing the reality of railway journeys around the world, rather than an idealised journey with all the actual difficulties that any everyday traveller would encounter edited out or glossed over.

A little while afterwards, we were in the Festival bookshop, and saw that Tarrant didn’t have anyone queueing up to have a book signed; so I took the opportunity to do that very thing. “Ah, it’s you again!” was his cheerful greeting. We had a pleasant five minutes’ chat about the themes we’d discussed in the interview. “You don’t like the Other Celebrity Traveller much, do you?” he observed, perceptively.

Hay lost its own railway station in 1962, part of the wholesale closures of the “Beeching axe”. This isn’t the place to talk about the mass closures of the major part of the UK’s secondary railway network, perhaps the greatest act of corruption in British political history, for which Richard Beeching has taken all the blame. But I was able to get a bit of steam railway action during the week at Hay. Due to an excess of zeal on my part, I hadn’t taken into account that my other half had meetings in Birmingham that week that she couldn’t get out of. So on two days, I took her to the nearest railway station (Worcester one day, Hereford another) so she could travel back to Birmingham; then I picked her up again in the evening. Rather than traipse all the way back to Hay and then back out to Worcester in the evening, I took myself off one day to the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, which runs from Toddington, to the south of Broadway (which is in Worcestershire, but never mind) to Cheltenham Racecourse. This was part of a longer route from Stratford-on-Avon to Cheltenham, connecting the Great Western Railway’s lines in the Midlands directly back to their Bristol heartland. When it opened in 1899, duplication of routes because of competition was acceptable because the absence of any meaningful alternative means of long-distance travel meant that intermediate stops that weren’t previously served by rail suddenly had access to the outside world; and if they actually happened to already have a railway from another company, then the interconnections added to the usefulness of the network as well as offering competition for more distant destinations.

The line opened in 1899 – quite late for the bulk of the British railway network – and local services lasted until 1960, when the intermediate stations were closed. The last timetabled trains ran in 1968, but the line stayed in place for diversionary services and occasional specials to Cheltenham Racecourse until 1976. Most of the station buildings and other infrastructure had been demolished during the 1970s; starting in 1979, even the track was lifted. Local pressure to retain the railway had started in 1976, but with the total closure the aim of a local society became to restore the railway and services. The group acquired part of Toddington station yard in 1981 and were able to purchase 15 miles of trackbed, land and surviving buildings in 1984. Since then they have progressively opened more of the line until now they operate the twelve miles between Toddington and Cheltenham Racecourse, and are working towards re-opening the line to Broadway in the next two years. In the meantime, station buildings and infrastructure have been recreated from scratch; the casual visitor would never realise that the whole line has been rebuilt from almost nothing.

The overall ambience of the railway is almost pure Great Western. Now, British railway enthusiasts are almost as tribal as football fans; and perhaps one of the biggest divides is between “Swindon men” (and the rivalry is mainly a male thing), enthusiasts for the Great Western, and people like me who consider themselves “Derby men”. Derby was the headquarters of the Midland Railway company from 1840 to 1923; then, when the railways had consolidation forced on them by Government after World War I, Derby and its locomotive and carriage works became a key part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. (Of course, rivalries also existed between ‘Derby men’ and ‘Crewe men’, who cleave to the Midland’s great rival, the London and North Western Railway, which also ceased to exist in 1923. I never said any of this was rational.)

Having been brought up in Derbyshire, with a father who was a railwayman for twenty years, my allegiance to Derby would hardly come as a surprise; perhaps the wonder is that my interests range far and wide, not only in railways but in other things too.

Be that as it may: I had a pleasant day on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire line and it was an ideal counter to all the bookish high thoughts going on at Hay.

Written by robertday154

October 10, 2017 at 12:30 am

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Breaking the silence

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Another long silence on the blogging front, caused mainly by Stuff Happening. Already at the time of my last post back in June, I was running a bit behind and only really gathered the momentum to blog on the fallacy of the “baby boomers had it all” argument because a cogent argument against that came to me in a flash. In fact, there’s been a lot of Stuff Happening, and in the next few weeks, I fully intend to produce blog posts on:

  • Hay Festival 2017 – Neil Gaiman upstaging Stephen Fry, a conversation with Chris Tarrant , and Out and About in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire
  • Mr. Prostate
  • A trip to County Durham
  • Three days in Manchester
  • Brian Aldiss
  • Melbourne
  • The Fiesta runs its course

As you see, there’s a lot been happening and it’s been happening rather faster than I’ve had time to catch up with blogging about. ‘Mr. Prostate’ will be a medical tale, fortunately, not of horror (though some might disagree when we get into details). And the last post proposed is the story of a road traffic accident. Fortunately, no-one was hurt and all the paperwork has been reasonably straightforward, but it’s still taken up time and energy that might otherwise have gone on something more creative.

I’ve also been delayed with IT problems. My desktop PC  suddenly decided to display the Blue Screen of Death. “No problem”, I thought. “I’ve been very careful about making backups” as I connected my big 2 TB external hard drive to my laptop. “You cannot access this drive” it said. “You are not the authorised user.” Oh, the joys of additional functionality – for which, read complexity. Fortunately, everything is backed up elsewhere and I can retrieve most files I need, but I’ve still to try connecting my photographic storage device, a 1 TB twin RAID drive. Which is why these blogs will come out in easy stages as I retrieve pictures….

I can, however, report back on a pleasant evening giving a presentation to the Midlands Testers meetup in Solihull last night. My presentation was entitled “Mere excellence is not enough” and was concerned with the way that software testers affect, and are affected by, the corporate world, drawing examples from my own career path (sometimes, when I think of my career, the other meaning of the word comes to mind – ‘hurtling uncontrollably onwards’). I think it went down all right, though a few more attendees would have been nice, and my best jokes in the presentation fell a little flat, but you can’t have everything in this life. My main message was that you can do everything right, but sometimes stuff still goes wrong, just because. Chalk it up to experience and move on. Interestingly, one of the testers attending for  the first time last night is working at a company I did six months’ contract work for a few years back and found it quite enjoyable, Stratec Biomedical in Burton-on-Trent.

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(Photo courtesy of Midlands Testers.)

The Q&A session after the main presentation was reasonably lively, though for the moment it seems to have exhausted all my significant thoughts about testing, though something else may emerge later. And if anyone is reading who has come to this blog after seeing me in Solihull, please feel free to explore my older posts, which were intended to help me market my photography; since when, this blog has morphed into something a bit more general. Still, you never know what will come up in future…

Written by robertday154

September 22, 2017 at 12:06 am

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A Victim must be found

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In just over a month’s time, I shall turn sixty. I know that they say that sixty is the new forty; and I have to admit that on seeing various friends take on new challenges, such as ballet or sea kayaking, I have to agree. Even in my own case, taking on a new job with new challenges, and what is more enjoying it, is equally satisfying. When my parents were this age, they were beginning to “wind down to retirement”, as the phrase went. Not now. I know that the moving of the retirement age goalpost means that I shall have to work an extra year to get my retirement pension; and there are times when the knees creak and various bits of me hurt for no good reason that I do feel my age (and more). But on the whole, the plusses outweigh the minuses, at least for the time being. How much that will continue over the next six years remains to be seen, of course. And it is sobering to look at various obituaries and take note of the ages of the subjects.

But one thing does irritate me a lot. That is the fairly constant drip of complaints from various people that my generation, the ‘baby boomers’, have “taken it all”; got the big fat final salary pensions, paid off the mortgage and possibly even raised equity on the house, got their education without having to be saddled with a massive loan, and are living the life of Riley on more money than they can comfortably spend in a lifetime (though they may try their best).

Well, that’s not me, and it’s not a lot of people I know.

My parents were of the wartime generation. But they were also the generation caught up in the major recession of the late 1970s. My father was made redundant in 1979 and faced having to rebuild his career in his 50s. It involved relocation and taking on a newer, bigger mortgage. It suited us for me to move in with them in the new location because I was able to access a better job (in terms of job quality, certainly not money) and I was able to pitch in with things like the mortgage endowment policy, which was all the rage in those days and what all the building societies were pushing.

Endowment policies became one of the first financial mis-selling scandals, on the basis that people weren’t told that the value of investments could go down as well as up. I recollect that I checked at the time this became an issue, and the words were there in the small print; but in the middle 1980s, the Government of the day wanted people to believe that the City was their friend and deregulation would lead the way to prosperity. Five years later, the story was that the endowment policies had “under-performed”. Well, one of my jobs at the time when I worked for the water regulator, Ofwat, was checking the share holdings in the privatised water companies, and I saw who owned what (for holdings in excess of 3%) and how those shares were performing. On that basis, my mortgage endowment was performing very well indeed, if the 0-60mph figures of the Porsche 911s that were so popular amongst the fund managers of the day were anything to go by. I take the view that endowment policies didn’t under-perform, they were mis-managed.

Of course, I was working in the public sector. Contrary to a lot of perceived wisdom at the time, the public sector was not paid well, at least not at rank-and-file level. My earnings never reached the national average wage in thirty years. Performance-related pay schemes kept increasing the pressure to perform better and better, and paid high-flyers out of the same pay pot that everyone else had to share; so those who merely performed ‘satisfactorily’ were passed over for the big increases. And certain support jobs were in an invidious position; when your work is to a set routine, no matter how important that job is or how much impact getting it wrong would have, how can you perform it ‘excellently’? (Referring to a colleague with even more of a support role than I had, I once asked, perhaps rhetorically, “How can you deliver post excellently?”)

As for bonuses, they were usually the preserve of the blue-eyed boys and girls; only when there was a major exercise were there any bonuses on offer to anyone else, and that was perhaps once every five years. Again, some of the publicly-quoted figures for public sector bonuses quoted big numbers; but again, many public sector pay schemes capped pay increases and when you reached the top of your pay scale, any increase you were due was given to you as a lump sum bonus, instead of a cost of living increase.

And all this was before the financial crisis of 2008. Public sector pay went into the freezer (in fact, it had been in the freezer for a couple of years before that; below-inflation pay rises through the Noughties became a “cost-neutral” increase in 2008-09, and a 0% increase in 2009-10, before the Coalition came to power, though Gordon Brown’s government flatly denied that).

It was fairly common for people to talk about public sector “gold-plated pensions”. Well, gold-plating is a thin veneer of something shiny over something essentially worthless. For a final salary pension to be any good, you have to be on a good final salary. After thirty years in the Civil Service, I was still on less than the national average salary. In 2010, self-employment looked the least worst option, and that was what I opted for. In the years since then, I’ve been pretty close to the breadline, and now no longer have a property to my name. I have no pension pot to invest, as Civil Service pensions are met from current taxation; I have no property to have equity in.

I realise that I’m in a better position than some; I now have a private sector job which was able to pay me a salary increase this year, the first for two years and the biggest for more than twenty. And I’m not asking for more, or whinging about how unfair everything is. I’m complaining about those members of the commentariat who try to blame me and my generation for everything and try to make me look like some sort of fat cat.

These are senior politicians, academics, journalists and financial experts who have profited from the advantages they see in my generation, and who are trying to spread the blame for the hardships to come across my entire age cohort. Often, they belong to the very sectors who have become personally enriched in the past thirty years – the fund managers, the City men, the rising politicians and generally the members of the Establishment. They benefitted from deregulation, they benefitted from liberalisation of markets, they benefitted from privatisation, and they diverted criticism onto anyone as long as it didn’t fall to them.

I am now reaching the stage where I treat all pronouncements by senior politicians, journalists and other ‘opinion formers’ as nothing more than a pack of self-serving lies. I ask myself, “What is your interest in this? Where does your money come from?”, and those answers usually make me dismiss what they say. There are also a range of pressure groups who demand their place in the public eye; but their offer is nearly always just empty sloganising. Many of them are based on ignorance, stupidity and prejudice, making any sort of intelligent discussion impossible. The New Zealand writer Matt Suddain has summed it up perfectly: “…the greatest possible horror is not that humanity might end, but that our Empire of Stupidity might last forever.”

My last job came to an end because a company of venture capitalists decided that the difficulties in building something new from scratch were too expensive and impacted shareholders; the purpose of their company was to maximise shareholder value, not to make a better product or find better ways of delivering a service. They took a highly profitable company and in two years turned it into a barely profitable one, and then blamed the people who were trying to deliver innovation on the ground.

The Establishment tried to blame all this on the little people. But that didn’t work out as expected. And there are signs that the Establishment has been found out and people are fighting back. The next few years may well see serious change, and there are some who only have themselves to blame if that change does not work out in their favour.

I have no solutions. But I know who is speaking against me and my interests. I’m only an ordinary person, with little or no direct influence on affairs. All I can do is act in my everyday life in ways that maximise the opportunities open to me to improve my position, and to work in whatever ways I can against those who threaten me, whether that’s down to how I cast my vote, or how and with whom I spend my money when I make free market choices, based on what information and knowledge I can glean about those trying to sell me stuff. It’s the only power I have, and it’s not much for me, as an individual, to wield. But I do what I can. And I write my blog, so that from time to time other might read my thoughts and make their own minds up. And that’s all I ask: think for yourself and don’t believe everything you’re told. Knowledge is power, goes the old saying. Never lose the chance to extend your knowledge, because one day you may come across something that adds to something else you already know, and another piece of the jigsaw falls into place.

And when that jigsaw is complete, act on what it says to you.

Written by robertday154

June 26, 2017 at 11:59 pm

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On Water

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In a break from my usual policy, I’m going to comment on current UK politics in some level of detail. I’m not going to offer a firm opinion on the particular issue; instead, I’m going to set down what I know about the issue from first hand, so that anyone who is interested and wants to can have access to what I know and decide accordingly.

The topic is water re-nationalisation, as set out in the Labour Party’s manifesto. I will not get into arguments about how electable or not the Labour Party currently is, or about the merits or lack of merits of Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader. Any comments that I receive that ignore the rest of what I’m going to write here and go on about Corbyn this or Corbyn that or are specifically and blindly partisan will be moderated away. I’m trying to do my bit to restore some sort of rationality to political debate. I realise that’s probably a doomed enterprise from the start, but it’s where I come from.

I worked for the water regulator, Ofwat, from just after privatisation in 1989 to the end of the first year of the Coalition Government in December 2010. I was never very high up in the chain of command, but as Ofwat was and is a small organisation and I was working close to the top in a support role for the first five years, and then with key regulatory data for the following fifteen, I can claim to have been a fly on the wall at certain points.

The problem with the pledge to re-nationalise water in the Labour manifesto is that this is just one paragraph, with little in the way of detail. Water hasn’t been high on the political radar for some time, and up to the publication of the manifesto, little had been said by any political party on the subject. Opinions that have been expressed (on either side) have not generally been made from a position of knowledge. Wider utility issues have been a hot topic, though, with the Tory pledge to impose price cap regulation on the energy industry. On that topic, I would merely point out that there was price cap regulation on the energy industry in the years immediately following privatisation, only for it to be dropped because of the judgement that the competitive energy market was sufficiently mature to regulate prices. This has been challenged by the number of customers actually switching supplier. Meanwhile, water has continually been subject to price cap regulation and efforts to introduce competition have been slow, in part because of the sheer artificiality of any competitive water market in the absence of common carriage and a national water grid.

I make no apologies for the length of this post. Our modern life is complex; the recent trend amongst politicians for simple answers and mistrust of experts (because they tell you difficult stuff) is, in my view, at best misguided and at worst delusional, because in the real world, there are complex reasons for stuff happening, and if you ignore complex stuff happening, the end result is that it can blow up in your face.

Before privatisation

Before privatisation, there were ten water authorities for England and Wales (Scotland has always been separate) which covered water supply and sewage treatment. These were formed in 1973 from the nationalisation of a range of local water undertakings, either individual water companies or municipal undertakings.

By some clever lobbying and political manoeuvring, some nineteen water companies avoided nationalisation. These were established as “statutory water companies”; their shares, though tradable, were listed on the alternative securities market and their rates of return were capped.

Overall direction of the industry was limited. Water authority investment decisions were driven by the political agenda and budgets with water having to take its place amongst other priorities for public money, and so by the 1980s, the industry was seeing the effects of under-investment and falling standards. Meanwhile, overseas investors – especially French water companies – were making investments in the statutory companies.

Privatisation

The Thatcher government’s solution to these problems, as with so many others, was privatisation. The private sector would be able to raise money better than the public sector, investors would be guaranteed a rate of return because the consumer market was about as captive as it could be, water and sewage expenditure would come out of the public sector and investment decisions would be taken out of direct political control. A new regulatory regime would be put in place, applicable to the whole industry. The ten water authorities were therefore floated on the Stock Exchange from 1st August 1989 and the new regulator, the Office of Water Services (Ofwat) opened its doors for business on the same day.

Based wholly in Birmingham, Ofwat was headed by Ian (later Sir Ian) Byatt, a Treasury economist who earlier in his career had specialised in the economics of utility industries, and who, together with Steven Littlechild, the first electricity regulator, actually had written the book on the subject.

The ten privatised companies became known as “water and sewerage companies” (WaSCs) and the nineteen companies that had remained in the private sector became known as “water-only companies” (WoCs). The WoCs were given the freedom to list their shares on the open market and the rate of return cap was removed.

There was a requirement on companies to produce long-term costed investment plans (although at an early stage, Ian Byatt declared that Ofwat “was not GOSPLAN”, a reference to the Soviet Union’s office for planning of the centralised economy). These plans were reviewed and reported on. Early on, Ian Byatt visited all the companies to establish their opening position and to start making contacts, and something interesting emerged from this. It soon became clear that some of the smaller WoCs were in a shaky condition and did not have a good handle on their costs and expenditure. There were some which, it was estimated, were probably only 18 months or so from severe financial difficulties.

Meanwhile, the WaSCs were also getting to grips with the economic realities of the new regime. Many found that they did not have a good handle on their asset base, and in particular didn’t know the full extent of their networks.

These WaSCs were set up with a particular structure. The privatised companies that punters bought shares in were set up as parent group companies, which could diversify into any business area they saw fit. Water and sewerage services were in the hands of wholly-owned subsidiaries. This meant that if a WaSC made some really bad investment decisions and went bankrupt (I always used to say “Suppose Huge Water plc spent all its money on a boiled sweet factory and that gobbled up all their money…”), the water services company which actually ran the water and sewerage services could stand on its own and could be put in the hands of a special administrator until a buyer could be found for it.

Although the publicly-expressed aim of privatisation was to encourage small investors and turn Britain into a share-holding democracy, in practice large quantities of shares were bought by institutional investors, including private pension providers. One of my early jobs in Ofwat was to track publicly-disclosed share ownership (once a shareholding reaches 3%, it has to be so declared), and that told me a lot about the pensions and insurance industry, such as the underlying truth behind the supposedly poor performance of endowment policies. I saw what sort of return the big institutional investors were getting, and in the early years there was no under-performance. My endowment policy wasn’t under-performing, I surmised; rather, it performed rather well, in the form of some investment manager’s Porsche…

Regulation and company performance

Ofwat practised price cap control. We gathered information from water companies, reviewed their investment plans, looked at their costs and their outgoings, and set price limits beyond which companies could not charge. We also had the task of acting as a substitute for competition; so, if company A proposed spending £X on, say, mains renewals, we would use our oversight of the industry to say “But company B next door to you has similar issues and a similar programme of mains renewals, but their estimated cost for that work is half what you’re suggesting.” And so come price review time, we’d look at what company A proposed spending on mains renewals and if they’d not shown any improvement on their costs towards what company B was spending, we’d only allow company A roughly what company B’s comparative spend was.

A lot of water company spending was based on EU standards, especially on discharges to the environment. Another of my early jobs was to go down to Parliament and report back on the Committee stages of the adoption of the EU’s Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) into UK law. One of the aims of our involvement in this was to understand what was being demanded of companies so that we could spot any attempts by the companies to gold-plate their solutions to the UWWTD, because (the economists’ opinion was) “that’s what engineers do”.

All this ended up in customer prices that (for the most part) rose rapidly in the first ten years, for very little visible improvement in water and sewerage services. After all, these things are fairly invisible; we only notice them when they go wrong. Meanwhile, companies were free to invest in any business that took their eye. Some, like the Homecare insurance business, were linked with the core water business; others, like my fictional boiled sweet factory, were not. The idea was that the privatised business could use external investment to generate profit for shareholders above and beyond a reasonable rate of return from the water and sewerage business and wholly independent of it.

This misfired in the case of Welsh Water (Dwr Cymru), whose parent company, Hyder, invested heavily in the leisure industry. This was all fine until the Blair government imposed a windfall tax on utility profits which hit them hard. The company went up for sale, various assets and businesses (including electricity generation) were sold off, and the water and sewerage business was sold for £1 to a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, which ploughs its profits back into the business and has no shareholders. (Hence the reason why Labour’s manifesto only refers to water in England; Dwr Cymru has no profits, as well as falling to the Welsh Assembly to make governmental judgements on.) Dwr Cymru’s experience served to put nearly all other companies off the idea of large-scale diversification.

One of the big issues that exercises everyone is leakage. Ofwat looked at this dispassionately, as you might expect. The thing is that it costs pretty much the same to fix a leak whether it’s a pinhole or a major mains burst; so we evolved a measure called the “economic level of leakage” (ELL). This was the level of leakage where it was actually cheaper to bring a new water source into supply to compensate for leakage losses than it is to actually go out and track down and repair every leak. We commissioned some research into public perceptions on this matter, and it taught me something important about public opinions. We (well, the consultants we got to do this for us) put together a focus group and asked them “Should all leaks be fixed, irrespective of cost or size of leak?” and then looked at how many people agreed with that. They were then briefed about the ELL measure, with worked examples to explain the concept in terms that anyone could understand. The focus groups were even asked if they understood what they’d been told, and nearly everyone said “Yes”. And then they were asked the original question again – should all leaks be fixed regardless? And despite everything that had been done to explain it, almost exactly the same number of people as before said “Yes”. People prefer their firmly-held beliefs to clear and incontrovertible facts. (I’ve thought about this a lot since 2016.)

One of the other features of the industry since 1989 has been consolidation. Of the 19 WoCs, some of them were very small. Indeed, the smallest, Cholderton & District Water, still survives today. It serves two villages and seven farms on the edge of Salisbury Plain and was created in 1904 by a philanthropic landowner and MP (back in the days when MPs actually displayed integrity from time to time) who wanted to bring piped water to his tenants. This is a truly local water company; it has a staff of three, you are quite likely to find the MD going out on a tractor with a bag of tools to fix a pump, and it’s not that long since it stopped accepting produce in exchange for water bills.

But there were also a number of small companies, such as Hartlepool, York Waterworks, or East Worcestershire Water. These and others became targets for acquisition by larger companies and disappeared in the first ten years or so. There were also instances where companies were in common ownership, and over the years Ofwat pursued a policy of encouraging companies in common ownership to become single undertakings to achieve economies of scale. So by 2015 the number of companies of both types was down to eighteen (though since then there have been some new entrants). In cases of merger, in setting the prices for the new company Ofwat insisted on there being a direct dividend to customers in the form of lowered prices.

The flow of steady if unspectacular profits (in corporate terms) once the regulatory regime settled down into maturity meant that companies became targets for takeovers. This led to Wessex Water becoming part of the Enron empire; when Enron imploded, the company was bailed out by Malaysian investors. Thames became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Australian bank Macquarie; and we saw the beginning of what the government of the day called “the Lilley Doctrine” (named for Peter Lilley MP, one-time Secretary of State for Social Security in the Major government), summed up as “we didn’t privatise these companies only to have them taken over by foreign nationalised industries”. The counter-argument is that under EU competition and open market rules, nationalised entities in Europe are structured as private companies anyway (even if the state, sometimes through a number of different players, remains the majority or even sole shareholder) and so through the Single Market are fully entitled to buy other companies in other lands. (How the Lilley Doctrine will fare during Brexit negotiations remains to be seen but could well be very interesting.) Meanwhile, companies have maintained their profitability but often through cutting jobs, outsourcing and offshoring, and adopting new technology, just like so many others.

Ian Byatt’s term as Director General of Water Services ended in 2000. The Labour Government had determined to review Ofwat because when in Opposition, they had criticised regulation for being too personality-driven. As a result, they introduced legislation that restructured Ofwat in a more corporate style. By 2004, Ofwat had a CEO and a Board; and attention turned back to attempts to bring in competition. The latest model for water industry competition is based around third-party water retailers, who compete to supply water in the most economic way. The same companies will put water into supply from the same sources and send it through the same pipes; but retail companies will buy it in bulk and compete amongst themselves to sell it on to end users (you and me). This is planned to be slowly rolled out, first to smaller business customers and eventually to domestic customers. But in trying to put a greater emphasis on competition, the role of Ofwat setting prices, analysing performance and acting as a substitute for competition has been downgraded. There is also evidence to suggest a level of company capture. One of my bosses once said that any proper private sector company would give its corporate right arm for a guaranteed income stream for the next five years in exchange for some form-filling; instead, although we kept regular oversight of how much and what information we collected, and strove to ensure that we only asked for the level of information that any prudent company would collect for its own uses, the companies were continually pushing back over the “burden of regulation” (despite the fact that many of them used Ofwat information internally for its own purposes, such as performance management).

And “light touch regulation” was the flavour of the month, though when the company headed by the doyen of deregulation, David Arculus (who also headed the Better Regulation Task Force), was found to have falsified its data returns to Ofwat, we were fully justified in fining them £35 million, and the Serious Fraud Office took very great interest in them. (By the way, fines cannot be passed on to customers. They have to come out of profits. And any company who tried hiding fines under other headings in the accounts in order to offload them onto the customer base would find its directors at risk of jail sentences and disqualification.)

One of Ofwat’s other duties, when setting prices, is to decide what a “reasonable” rate of return is. How much profit is “reasonable” from a regulated monopoly? The answer, of course, depends on your political viewpoint. In the case of Dwr Cymru, the answer is “zero” and all profits are ploughed back into more investment. For others, there are a number of viewpoints depending on how far up the list delivering shareholder value is. Whether you think regulation is a substitute for direct political control is going to determine how far you’re prepared to go along with privatisation.

Re-nationalisation?

A lot of different people have made good money out of privatisation. I suppose it’s possible to say that the privatisation process shifts the beneficiaries of the undertaking from employees and a wide proportion of the taxpaying public who use the service to a more focussed group of investors (who make a return on their investment) and contractors (who get paid for, and make a profit from, providing services to the undertaking that they might have handled internally in the past, or might not have done at all). The taxpaying public’s benefit becomes solely that of the recipient of the service that they pay directly for.

It is a feature of a nationalised undertaking that everyone pays for a service through taxation that not everyone will use. So, the argument runs, rail passengers should pay more for their tickets to finance the service that they use, whilst road users shouldn’t pay taxes for rail subsidies because they aren’t using rail. This argument ignores the additional impact on roads that rail passengers would represent if there were no trains for them to travel on, or the impact that increased heavy goods vehicles would inflict on the road network if there were no freight trains. And it’s not just a question of who pays for what; actual provision of capacity becomes an issue. Or to take another example; I have no children – why should I pay a share of the cost of educating the children of others? The answer is that I live in a society where old and young mix, in work, and commerce, and leisure. The education that I help pay for benefits me in the actions and knowledge and expertise that those younger than me use in their everyday lives when we interact.

(And it cuts both ways. The late Tony Benn had this to say about why the young should contribute towards the pensions of the retired:

What do the young get out of taking responsibility for the old? The answer is simple, for it is the sense of identity between the generations and the security that that sense of identity provides. I find it very comforting. But if older people are to be interesting to the young they have to be interested in the young and treat them with respect.

It seems to me that this is the very basis of any successful society.)

So it is with water. For example, take South West Water, who had a massive increase in bills, at the very limit of the ability of local inhabitants to cope with, to pay for a huge coastal clean-up along the longest section of coast of any water company to improve the aquatic environment, and compare them with Thames Water, who have possibly a similar outlay in putting in place systems to cope with the sewage output of their massive population, but equally have a far larger customer base to spread those costs across; and this resulted in South West having the biggest bills in the country and Thames having a far more reasonable rate of increase. In a nationalised scenario where the costs of necessary investment are met from centralised taxation and all contribute the same proportion of the tax take to water and sewerage services nationally, customers in the South West would be subsidised by customers in London and the south east.

(One of the arguments  put to the residents of the south west was that as a lot of the impact on the environment is caused by a seasonal influx of visitors, those in the hospitality industry could do their bit by raising prices to those visitors to reflect their impact on the environment and the pressure on water and sewerage bills. It could be argued, though, that placing the burden on centralised taxation would achieve the same ends.)

It is possible for the state to run a business as a business (as long as the managerial expertise is in place). Nils Pratley, writing in The Guardian shortly after the Labour Manifesto was published, commented that as the Government can borrow money at preferential rates, borrowing at 1.5% to purchase an industry with a current rate of return of 3.4% is actually quite sensible. But, he points out, that isn’t the point of the policy. The Labour argument isn’t that the Government could make a better deal; instead, it’s a democratic argument. It’s about governance, and whether there are certain services which should be provided by the state to ensure equality of access  and equality of standards, and that the undertaking itself serves broader national objectives as opposed to narrow, self-interested ones. Many who voted for British exit from the EU were motivated by the democratic imperative; “taking back control”. It’s possible to see the argument for re-nationalisation in the same light. And just as there are those who say that Brexit is worth any price, there are those who say that money is not the primary consideration in re-nationalisation.

It is true to say that average bills (and please try to understand what average means; so many seemingly intelligent people don’t seem to understand this) are 40% higher than they were at the time of privatisation. However, recent price cap settlements have begun rolling those increases back as the initial investment programmes have been fulfilled (Thames Tideway notwithstanding). Some are currently saying that bills would (again on average) be some £150/year higher were it not for privatisation, but we’re talking pure speculation on hypothetical cases here. Had regulation been more light touch in the earlier years and companies allowed to pass all enhanced costs through to the customer, we might have been looking at far higher bills. The first reset of price limits that Ofwat did in 1994 was estimated to have taken some £60/year off future bills in the following five years compared with what the companies initially asked for. And there have been another three price reviews since then.

Previous Labour governments and manifestoes proposed increasing state oversight of the water industry through strengthening Ofwat’s powers or changing their remit; and certainly, Ofwat would still have a function even in a future nationalised scenario. When the Thatcher administration was thinking about extending water privatisation to Scotland (as they tried roughly once per Parliament), a lady wrote to the newspaper The Scotsman with the often heard argument against privatisation, “Why should we pay for water? God sends the rain to fall on our land for free.” The next day, a response appeared in the form of another letter which said “God may send the rain to fall for free, but he disnae pay the wages of my mate Hamish who lays the pipes.”

Mad and costly political decisions can impact an industry whether it is in the public or the private sector; I recollect this story from the time when Chris Patten was Secretary of State for the Environment. He went to a conference on the environmental state of the North Sea and shocked his officials by standing up and without warning declaring that the UK would cease discharging raw sewage to the North Sea within the next five years, to which his officials, in best Sir Humphrey Appleby style, said “You said what, Secretary of State?” as of course, this sudden bright idea of his had not been discussed with anyone before that day and hadn’t figured in any legal obligations placed on companies up to then and included in forward investment plans. (They stopped short of calling it “courageous”, though.)

At only a single paragraph in the manifesto, Labour is not strong on the detail of renationalisation. Does it include the WoCs as well? I hope that the issues I’ve explored from the history of privatised water show that the sector has a range of issues which do not allow simple answers (quite apart from the ones I’ve not covered, such as metering or ability to pay). I’m not saying that it’s either a bad idea or a good one; I’m sure that a nationalised water industry could be made to work, just as when East Coast Trains were taken back into public ownership when the franchise holder walked away from the contract, the railway was actually run better and more profitably than when it was in private hands.

But I am saying that the sector has a lot of expertise to hand; and it has that expertise because it needs it. There are no simple answers. And any politician who looks for simple answers and ignores experts is storing up trouble for themselves.

 

 

Written by robertday154

May 18, 2017 at 3:48 pm

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Who do you think you’re kidding?

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I was looking through a friend’s blog today, and I came across a comment I’d posted. The comment told a story from my father’s history, and I thought it worth repeating. The comment was sparked by the release of a remake of the film of Dad’s Army, which started out as a BBC TV sitcom in 1968 telling the story of the wartime Home Guard. The original tv cast had a feature film outing in the 1970s, and that film got remade in 2016.

-oOo-

On Dad’s Army: I haven’t seen the remake, and frankly I’ve no intentions of deliberately doing so; it struck me as a particularly egregious example of ‘remake by numbers’ and no remake could possibly have the relevance of the original. My father enjoyed the original because he’d been in the Home Guard and many of the situations in the show had relevance to him; his platoon commander was also the local bank manager, and there were Boer War veterans in it as well. There most resemblance ended. Dad lived in what was then rural Essex, though now it’s the very edge of Greater London, and in 1940-41 the Home Guard were actually getting all the latest weapons and training from some of the best front-line regiments because they were expected to have to repel invasion at any time.

He always told this story: some of the Boer War vets were getting on in years, and once, on an exercise, one of the younger blokes had a little go at them for not being able to run so fast. “Run?” one old-timer said, “We didn’t join this outfit to run, we joined to fight!”

“Well, then, what’ll you do if Jerry comes?”

“I’ll take my rifle and a box of ammo and I’ll go up that tree at the crossroads, and I’ll just pot away at them until they roll over me.”

That sort of sobering comment sometimes – not often, but sometimes – came out in the original series, and it was the skill of the writers that they could inject that sort of thing into the comedy and bring the audience up sharp from time to time, just to remind them that life ain’t all fun and games.

Of course, there were actors in the original cast who had been in combat. The most interesting example was Arnold Ridley*, who had combat decorations and had been wounded in WW1. There is a wonderful episode where his character, Godfrey, is ‘outed’ as having been a conscientious objector in WW1, and the rest of the platoon, of course, ostracise him, Then, one day on exercise, Godfrey rescues Captain Mainwaring from a dangerous situation and is injured himself. When they go to see him afterwards when he is recuperating at home, they see that he has the Military Medal on display in his room. He’d actually ended up as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front and been decorated for bravery in rescuing men from No Man’s Land under fire. Oh how everyone’s opinion suddenly changed. That episode should be required viewing for anyone, and it shows how great comedy can teach life lessons. I doubt whether the remake gets or could get anywhere near that.

-oOo-

*Arnold Ridley was also a playwright, best known for his play The Ghost Train. His great-niece, Daisy Ridley, played the lead role in the seventh Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.

Written by robertday154

May 3, 2017 at 12:38 pm

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We also have Sound-houses

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I’ve written before about my involvement with the UK science fiction community and the organised anarchy that is the Easter (and World) Science Fiction conventions. (As I said once before, the best comment about the UK Eastercon came from a hotel: “They drink like a rugby club, but they’re as much trouble as a chess club.”)

Last weekend, I attended the 68th Eastercon, at the Hilton Metropole hotel on the NEC site outside Birmingham. And just to confound anyone who thinks they know what a science fiction convention must be like, the rest of this post consists of a link to a review of the highlight of the convention; a recital for harp, glass harmonica, Ondes Martenot and Cristal Baschet of music with genre connections. This was, in the opinion of many, worth the cost of attending the entire weekend.

The review is by James Bacon and the link will take you to Mike Glyer’s File770 site.

http://file770.com/?p=34472&cpage=1

Written by robertday154

April 20, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized