I’ve been really quite silent for a couple of months, after getting my new job. This is mainly down to the job being rather more taxing than I expected, though for a number of reasons I count this as a Good Thing.
All my other blogging friends have been putting out regular posts on the burning issues of the day, something I’ve really left them to. With a handful of exceptions, I find that my views are considered by many people to be very much a minority position, being based as they are on knowledge and experience. I realise that this is very unfashionable nowadays. I also know – and knew before recent political upheavals – that you can give people all the facts you can muster, and they will still at the end of the day prefer their prejudices. When I worked at Ofwat, we did some research into public opinions on leakage. Ofwat had a policy called the “economic level of leakage”; the costs of sending a crew out to repair a leaky pipe is pretty much the same whether it’s a pin-hole leak losing next to nothing or a major strategic main burst losing megalitres. So we asked members of the public “should all leaks be fixed, irrespective of how much is actually being lost?” And they said “Yes.” Then we explained that there comes a point with some leaks where it costs more to fix than it does to just compensate for the loss by putting more water into supply. We explained this in layman’s terms and made sure that everyone understood the concept (to the point of actually asking the question “Do you understand what has been explained to you?”). Then we asked again, “should all leaks be fixed, irrespective of how much is being lost?” And the majority still said “Yes”.
That research was done in – possibly – about 2005, and for me it was an eye-opener on public opinion. This is what some politicians seem to mean when they say that “we have had enough of experts”, obviously because they tell you inconvenient facts that don’t fit your world-view. And now this seems to be a major driver in government headline policies in a number of countries.
Debate is impossible under those circumstances – so I’ve given up trying. I know some of my former union friends and colleagues will say that the fight is worth the candle, that it is always best to campaign and struggle for what is right. That’s fine; but I’ve only got so much time and energy left to me, and I’ve got a new job and I’m learning new stuff. I haven’t room in my life right now for trying to butt my head against a brick wall as well. I wish those who want to try the best of luck on that. (Another part of this is my realisation that time is passing by; my next birthday has a zero on the end of it, and as the joke has it, when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for twenty-five years…)
My new employers, Celcat, are a software house that produces a rather specialist product – timetabling software for universities and colleges of higher education. They were started some thirty-odd years ago by a lecturer in electrical engineering at Warwick University who was struggling with his timetables. Hearing his lamentations, his son said “Dad, I can do that on the computer.” Thirty years later, they are still doing it (and both father and son are engaged with the company. The son is in the office at least three times a week, still doing coding.). The application has had numerous add-ons and enhancements over the years, but is essence it’s the same product. The company only does this product and they do it well. Celcat has grown over the years to a strength of about thirty; that growth has been organic, and only supported by sales. There have been no departures into exotic and unrelated products, and no ambitious plans for global growth (despite the company actually selling the product all over the world) requiring cash injections from sleeping partners, venture capitalists or shareholders. What money the company makes is wholly its own. Premises are modest; the company prefers to spend on kit and training to keep everyone on the leading edge – partly because the company sees this as a boon, and partly because the customer base is blessed with all the latest kit because of the generous discounts given by the IT industry to the education sector. The clients are at the leading edge in terms of kit and applications deployed; we have to be as well.
This means that I am now in an environment which to me feels more like a university than an office. And what’s more, I’m learning new stuff. I now know more than I ever did about SQL database management, and I run two virtual machines as do all my colleagues – at my last place, the entire IT department had one VM that was used by everyone as necessary. Celcat believe in giving you the tools for the job. And once my probation is over (in about a month’s time), there is training on the horizon, especially as the next big project we’ll be involved with is going to require automation, where what skills I have are a good ten years out of date. And it’s quite likely that in 2018, I’ll get to go with the rest of the team on a trip to a major testing conference.
(To the non-techies amongst you: a ‘virtual machine’ is an emulation of one computer run on another. Processing power and hard disk sizes mean that this is possible nowadays. It means that I can have independent machines to do testing on without having to clutter up my desk with lots of physical boxes.)
My colleagues are an interesting group, though I’m afraid my arrival rather rained on one guy’s parade when he said he was “the oldest tester in the company”. “Not any more you aren’t..” I thought. But this is all to the good. As I race inexorably onward into futurity and my burgeoning 60th birthday, the one thing I can’t afford to do is start thinking of myself as old. I get enough physical reminders of that daily; working with younger colleagues keeps me on my mental toes.
(And in any case, didn’t Tony Benn once say that if the young are going to continue to support the old with their taxes, the least the older people can do is listen to the young and take an interest in them, support them, encourage them, teach them but also learn from them?)
Something really quite odd happened in my second week. The test manager I was working for suddenly announced that he was leaving. When a colleague asked who he was going to work for, he said “A software house in Market Harborough” and he then proceeded to name them. It was the same place that interviewed me in the summer and then took a week to come up with a vaguely implausible reason for not appointing me. When he named them, he saw my face change and I told him my story. It turned out that they’d re-advertised the post and managed to fill it – probably with someone who worked for Celcat, but the evidence for that is only circumstantial – but that person had only lasted for a month before leaving because they were unhappy with the commuting. I knew that there had been some issues with their later recruitment exercises, because I’d been contacted by agencies on each occasion. In this case, however, my test manager actually had relatives in Market Harborough and was happy to relocate there, so the role was ideal for him. I’ve not had the chance to speak with him since, but he seems to be getting on all right. Perhaps things do work out for the best, even though it doesn’t seem like it at the time.
The one issue I have with the job is nothing to do with the employer; it’s the travelling. No, let’s be even more precise. It’s the last three miles of the travelling. Celcat is based on a business estate next to Warwick University. But when that was built, city planners had no idea about the sort of traffic flows that they might expect. So for the last three miles, traffic heading for the business park has to pass through a residential area and tangle with other commuter traffic heading for other destinations. And of course, Coventry’s public transport system is devoted to buses, with no dedicated bus lanes in our part of the city. Don’t even think about trams, such as those that Nottingham has so successfully introduced and which made that city an attractive proposition for commuting into.
And yet; IT companies rely on being able to draw in personnel form a wide range; I’ve heard people comment in the past that fifty miles is a completely acceptable commute for the right job, and IT companies tend to locate themselves out of town to take advantage of the motorway links to achieve this. Companies tend to look for very specific skill sets, and as qualified IT people are a minority of the population as a whole, it follows that the likelihood of happening across a job handy to you that matches your skills set is fairly remote. It happens – I interviewed for one job only a mile and a half from where I live – but it’s just as likely that you’ll have to travel. The person who gave up on the Market Harborough job seems as though they had unrealistic expectations of job availability.
When last I wrote, I was facing the prospect of having to replace my Mercedes C-Class as it was about to become “street illegal” and could not be made roadworthy without more money than I could possibly lay my hands on. Having gotten into work at the end of November, I was left with a car with about three weeks’ validity left on its MoT certificate – but no pay packet until just before Christmas, some five weeks away. However, an advance on wages from the employer gave me enough money to go shopping with; so it was onto a well-known car dealing website to see what I could find, cheaply and locally.
I toyed with the idea of an older Mercedes, as that would give me some prospect of solidity in a cheap car. But there was nothing all that attractive locally. Oh, there was an E-Class for about £450, and it looked in lovely condition. The trouble was that it was 19 years old, so it didn’t quite qualify for being exempt from Road Tax as a classic. In turn, that meant that the Road Tax, being based on a sliding scale of environmental acceptability, would probably be more than the value of the car, as it was a huge thing roughly the size – and probably maneuverability – of the battleship Bismarck, with fuel consumption to match.
Then some friends suggested that perhaps I should swallow my pride in individuality and settle for something a little more ordinary. And the logic of this came home to me. After all, it was the researcher into the uncanny, Charles Fort, who said ” A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine time.”. The Mercedes was the right car at the right time. More than once when I was self-employed and doing consultancy work, I turned up to a gig all suited and booted in a flashy silver Mercedes and found myself being listened to attentively. And even getting paid on time. But those days are past. So for me, it became Fiesta Time.
Hence, on the second Saturday in December, I took myself ten miles up the road to Coalville, to look for a dealer who had advertised a cheap Ford Fiesta. I went early, in case someone else had seen the same advert and decided that this would make a nice Christmas present for some teenager who had just passed their driving test. I drove up and down the road looking for the dealer, but the only car dealer I could find didn’t seem to be in the right place and in any case had a forecourt full of cars well out of my price bracket. Eventually, I gave up and went to ask there if they had heard of this bloke.
“Oh yes,” they said, pointing through the window into the landscape. “See those cars in that field over there? That’s him, behind the tyre depot.” I thanked them and left with sinking heart. Some cars in the corner of a field? This did not bode well.
I found my way around the back of the tyre depot – not an easy job as there were a lot of vehicles on their forecourt blocking the narrow entrance to the back yard. But having squeezed the Mercedes down the track, I found myself faced with a new and well-built paling fence, a plot of land, yes, in the corner of a field, but cleared and properly gravelled, and a selection of some twenty cars neatly parked up, in herringbone formation, and all looking reasonably well presented, cleaned and valeted. The office was a portakabin, but with proper steps and an a proper piece of hardstanding.
I asked about the car I had seen advertised, and was shown a blue, four-door Fiesta. It was old – a ‘W’ plate, dating from 2001 – but exceptionally low mileage (74,000) with a windscreen price of £450. With a new battery put on the car, it started at first touch and idled smoothly and without any unwanted noise or rattles from the engine. A test drive followed, where I found that it rattled a bit, but no more than seemed reasonable; accelerated well; and handled no worse than I’d expect. We talked money, and how much to take the Mercedes off my hands. A national commercial online buyer had quoted me £475, but I thought that to be ambitious, given the state of the vehicle; and if I’d taken up that offer, I would have had to have gone to somewhere on the south side of Leicester, then gotten myself a taxi back., and perhaps a taxi out to Coalville to pick my new purchase up. So taking a hit – or perhaps not – on the Mercedes seemed sensible. We shook hands on £200, leaving me £275 to pay. And the Fiesta was mine!
Of course there are things wrong with it. It’s so old, it still has a cassette player. The paintwork is a little tatty, if you look closely. There are some rust patches on the bodywork. The interior lights don’t come on when you open the doors. And it catches crosswinds quite badly, being essentially a box on wheels, and it handles even worse when cornering at any sort of speed – which you sometimes have to do on roundabouts when mixing it with the rest of the commuter traffic. Oh, and as I’m doing 60 miles a day round trip, the petrol tank is so small that I have to fill it up every three days. It’s costing me less in fuel than the Mercedes did, but it’s a case of ‘little and often’.
On the other hand, it has a remarkably powerful heater, the air conditioning – yes, air conditioning! – works, and instead of the low-profile tyres that the Mercedes had which meant that you felt every bump and minor hole in the road (let alone a particularly vicious speed bump just down the road from me), the Fiesta has (by comparison) balloon tyres that soak up a lot of irregularities in the road. And it is easy to drive and accelerates remarkably well for a 1200cc engine (even if it does strain a bit a motorway speeds – 65-70 mph is definitely its comfort zone, and until I can get it serviced I’ll be a bit twitchy about pushing it too hard for too long). Though it’s interesting to see how many other older Fiestas I see bombing up and down the M69…
I’d had the car for about eight weeks when something went wrong. The windscreen wipers failed one evening on my way home from work. Of course, it wasn’t in a light shower but in a tremendous deluge, made worse by all the spray thrown up by passing traffic and with night falling just to add to the experience. The RAC came out in about 45 minutes – not too bad for rush-hour on a Friday – and made a temporary repair with what looked like a giant paperclip.
I took it to my regular garage, who enthused over how cheap and easy they were to repair, and proved it by replacing both wiper actuating links in 30 minutes flat for £58.
A mystery remains. According to the registration documents, the car was a grey import from Jersey in 2001, where it had been a “H for Horror” car. (Major manufacturers often register cars in the Channel Islands as hire cars, where they acquire a number plate prefixed with ‘H’; after six months, during which time some of them never turn a wheel as the manufacturers import far more cars than there can possibly be hirers, they are re-exported to the UK where they are sold as ‘pre-owned’). It had then gone to Preston in Lancashire, and it had spent all its time there, with three lady owners putting those 74,000 miles on it in 15 years. So how did it end up in Leicestershire? The last owner identified herself as “Miss”, and to me that suggested one of two things, Either she was a young miss who had married and moved to live with her new spouse, and the car had become surplus to requirements in the new household. Or – and this seems to me more likely – the previous owner had been an older Miss who had passed away, and her nearest next of kin were in Leicestershire. The fact that the car had had a new clutch in March 2016 suggested that as a possibility – the service history showed that fair amounts had been spent on the car over the years, and a new clutch isn’t something that you put in a car that you’re about to get rid of voluntarily.
A nice, new(er) car is out of the question right now; I’m still feeling the financial effects of six months out of work, and that can take a while to get over. Add to that the fact that I now owe the council some money as the rules for Housing Benefit have changed since I dealt with it as an administrator back in the 1980s, so that salaries are now taken into account for the period that they are paid, not on the basis of when you get it. So whilst I was claiming housing benefit, I should have stopped claiming as soon as I got a job, instead of waiting until I got my first pay packet. After all, my rent and rates are paid in advance, but I don’t get paid in advance. And that was the way I understood the treatment of earnings in the benefit system – wages are taken into account when you get them, because they have to last you to next pay day. But apparently, the Government thinks that now you can draw on wages before you get them. Logical, captain.
Worse still, the tax man has come up with a gem. They seem to think that I paid insufficient tax last year to the tune of £792, despite the fact that all my income was (and still is) taxed at source. I’m waiting for some sort of explanation of this; and I suppose I shall have to endure some sort of telephone conversation with the Revenue. I’d better book the day off now. At leas they have decided that I can now stop doing individual tax assessments each year as I have no money coming in from self-employment any more. (Not that there was ever much of that anyway. I never made enough from self-employment to get taxed on it; so how come I owe them money now? Confused? I am.)
Still, things are looking up nonetheless. I’m booked in for the Eastercon for the first time in a few years (albeit in an overflow hotel). Three days at the NEC isn’t much of a holiday, but it’s the best I’ve managed for quite a while!