Saturday, 30 May 2009

Penny Pinching

We all know that the economies of the world are in melt down. But this brings home the reality of how things are affecting people.

A Pound World store in Poole, in Dorset, had to shut its doors recently, following a massive slump in sales. Not unusual you might say, given the number of stores that appear to be closing their doors on a daily basis.

However, this story takes its shocking turn when you find that the reason for the slump in sales was the opening of a 99 pence store nearby. (Seemingly, across the road)

It is amazing to think that people would literally change their shopping habits, just to save a single penny!
What lessons might the bigger chain stores learn from this by cutting their prices - even by the smallest of margins!

International Footie

As far as I know, Tuesday 6th February 2007 still remains a record breaking day for London, when the city hosted no less than 4 international rugby fixtures on the same night. It has become quite a norm over recent years for the city to host football games of nations other than England, and this probably best indicates the cosmopolitan nature of the city and the huge variety of people and cultures you will find here.

Friday night was another example, when the Republic of Ireland took on the Super Eagles of Nigeria in a friendly football international at Fulham's Craven Cottage. Keen to experience the atmosphere of an international football game, I joined 11,262 other supporters (I counted them).

It really was a fantastic experience, with the Irish supporters slightly outnumbering the Nigerian supporters - but not by many.
The game was played in an excellent spirit, and the Scottish referee never had to produce a single yellow card in the 90 minutes.

The first half was all action. The Nigerians playing a far more muscular and robust brand of football, over the more European style of technical passing and precision of the Irish (perhaps instilled by manager, Giovanni Trapattoni.) However, for all their endeavour, the Irish team found it difficult to click together and it was in fact the Nigerians who played a better passing game, ultimately leading to them opening the scoring through Michael Eneramo just on the half hour.

The Republic of Ireland, spurred on by a massively noisy group of supporters, tried to respond, but still found it difficult. After 38 minutes however, they did manage to round off a sweeping move when Keith Andrews split the Nigerian defence and found Robbie Keane who rounded the Nigerian keeping, slotting home into an unguarded net.

The iconic Republic captain almost brought the house down, with the supporters chanting his name boisterously, and Keane taking the applause, acknowledging each stand in turn.

The second half was a completely different affair. Three substitutions by Ireland, including Keane, brought a different complexion to the game, and whilst they did threaten the Nigerian goal in the first 10 minutes of the half, Ireland still couldn't break down a stubborn defence, nor quite click their passing game together. With about 20 minutes of the game left, the crowd appeared to have settled for a draw, if the players hadn't, and a Mexican wave was started... An indication of the state of play at that time was that the wave went around Craven Cottage about 6 or 7 times without interruption.

The evening's entertainment drew to a close and the final result was the 1-1 draw.

It was a fantastic evening, a great experience and a very good first attendance at international football.
And with the number of international games that London regularly hosts, I am looking forward to my next game.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Spring Bank Holiday #2 : A flurry of flowers

Sometimes the best days start out planned, but end up spontaneous, and therein lies their charm.

On what news people have touted "the hottest day of the year"...
Wait - given the year straited in deepest Winter, and we are in May now, and approaching the Summer Solstice, is that not OBVIOUS that each day potentially becomes warmer than the previous? OK - rant over...
So, on the "Hottest Day of the Year so far", I thought I could never just sit indoors. This day needed to be spent outdoors in the sun.

So donning a t-shirt and SHORTS (yes, I wore shorts!) and headed toward Guildford in Surrey.
45 minutes later however, I had got myself lost in Guildford, and caught in various streams of traffic (apparently all heading to the Surrey Country show)
So eager to simply avoid traffic, I took a road and just followed it. About 30 minutes later, I found myself at the National Trust property, Winkworth Arboretum. So I stopped in.

Wow - yes, this has been a bit of a "flowery" weekend, having visited Claremont Gardens yesterday, but this was different. The landscaped gardens of Claremont were replaced today by the wild and unkempt magnificence of the Arboretum. And because it was Spring, the trees and plants were sporting new leafy clothing, and flowers were in abundance.

It seemed that every corner you took on the gravel path, your senses were confronted with a different cacophony of smells and fragrances. I even had the misfortune to startle a small bunny, who bounded off in excitement deeper into the undergrowth from where he gave me a weary, yet evil eye.

In the middle of the Arboretum is a large lake, flanked on one side by what has been named "The Meadow" and it was on this large, flat open area of grass that many families had made their way. And in the human world too it looked like Spring - there were LOTS of babies and prams in attendance, as families drew together for picnics while overlooking the lake. You can see more photo's of the walk here.

It was a very peaceful walk for about 90 minutes, and all because I had got frustrated in a traffic jam in Guildford!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Spring Bank Holiday #1 : Family Day out

It's a Bank Holiday weekend.
Two things have changed this morning, meaning the weekend is looking really good.

Firstly, my sniffling cold (Man Flu) has finally appeared to abate and breathing can take place in the manner God intended it to.
And secondly, for the briefest of moments, the sun appears ot have returned from Winter vacation and we had blue skies and warm sun. It is a day that cannot be spent at home, and os I headed out.

It is amazing to think that just 10 miles from where I live you can find Claremont Landscaped gardens. It is a fantastic 49 acre site now maintained by the National Trust and simply put, just a wonderful green lung in the midst of a concrete world.

Claremont Gardens

So I spent a while walking around the lake and enjoying the thriving bird life. And being Spring, each family of birds appeared to have a whole team of new members, and each father seemed to be sprting a slightly puffed out chest as he proudly flaunted his new brood to envious onlookers.

It really was a family day out, as even the birds seemed to be enjoying the sunshine.

When is a crisp not a crisp...?

You realise that here in London we take things VERY seriously?

There is no time for dallying about and talking about the weather - there are important legal matters to be considered and debated and resolved - and this week was just such a week for deliberation!

Yes, friends, this week we discovered that Pringles (those odd shaped snacks in the tube with the round faced bloke and the moustache) are in fact CRISPS! Well, who would have thought?

It appears that the manufacturer, Procter and Gamble, got themselves into a bit of a spat with Her Majesty's Tax man, and the two parties have been fighting about this for some time. And like all red blooded disputes - the issue is around money (though if it were about LOVE, it would be far more personable...)

But the key is VAT. You see VAT has to be paid over to the Tax Man on crisps, but not on several other foods. Until this Wednesday, Pringles were in fact "more like a cake or biscuit" (oh yes - I always have a Pringle with my tea - occasionally dunking a salty one!)

But the Court of Appeal ruled this Wednesday that even though the product contained only 42% potato content, this still constituted sufficient "potato-iness" (whatever the "essence of potato" is, to make it a crisp, and this Procter and Gamble need to pay VAT on their sales to Liz's tax men...

Yes, here in England we are on the cutting edge of the big issues... Thank goodness someone studied for so many years to be able to come to this remarkable decision.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Security services outsourced at Heathrow

Heathrow airport's management company, BAA, have outsourced security services for the airport.
Photographers were on hand at the "changing of the guard"...

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Eurovision Popularity Contest

The Brits love the underdog...
For whatever reason they seem to generate a mass affection for perennial runner up - or sometimes worse... There's the football team (who are doing better) but tend to disappoint at the semi final stage of any contest, the rugby team who haven't been able to revive their world cup winning form, Tim Henman whose greatest feat at Wimbledon was having a Hill embankment named after him, and then their Eurovision Song contest winner each year.

My first experience of this strange cultural event was in 2002. At first horrified by Terry Wogan's commentary, one learns that this commentary (now undertaken by Graham Norton) is in fact the best part of the whole damn show!

If you don't know, the Eurovision song contest is like Pop Idols - but between the countries of Europe, and the "Top" 25 compete one night every year and the populations of each country select their winner by telephone vote. It is cringe-TV of the highest quality, and often embarrassing enough to have you scampering behind your sofa, shivering and trembling for your Mommy.

And every year the United Kingdom comes last, or in a good year, second last.
Eurovision has in fact been responsible for coining a now popular phrase in England - "nuls points" - the French phrase meaning "Nil points" following a particularly disastrous entry in 2003 - when the United Kingdom scored ZERO points.

So this evening once more I settled behind the sofa, hands across my eyes trembling in anticipation... And I was surprised...
Firstly, by some miracle worthy of being an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical itself, Mr Lloyd Webber has managed to find a contestant to represent the United Kingdom, and then marketed her rather brazenly across the television sets of Europe over the last 4 months. The result - UNITED KINGDOM FINISH 5TH! (Out of 25 countries - you are not reading this incorrectly)

Perhaps more amazingly, the petty voting patterns that have governed the contest over the last several years (where Each Eastern European country would vote for its neighbours, and as such one of them seemed to always win regardless of quality of song) appears to have been broken. And that in a competition hosted in Moscow!

Yes, this evening a rather catchy little ditty, sung by someone looking like a Norwegian Wurzel one the contest.
Norway won! The curse is broken.
And on second listen, the song is in fact not too bad either.

Could it be?
Could music FINALLY have won the day?

But congratulations too though must go to Jade Ewen on her fine performance and finishing 5th.

If you are interested, here's the winner: Alexander Rybak from Norway

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

You can get a free lunch - if you choose...

The recession has hit people in different ways, but within all the chaos and mayhem it has sown, there are a few seeds of daredevil entrepreneurial daring and innovation.

Such is the case of Little Bay restaurant, in Farringdon. This promotion took place in February, but I only found it while reading a Financial mag this week (yes - I do read them sometimes).

Peter Ilic is the owner of Little Bay, and it must have taken daring beyond his 25 years experience to begin offering his patrons food completely for free. There was a catch (as there usually are with free lunches) - Peter asked you to pay what you felt the meal was worth - anything from a penny to £100. And not only did he run the promotion on a single lunch time, or a single day. He extended the offer for an entire month - the whole of February 2009.

The result?
Amazingly enough, Peter Ilic has had his faith in human nature renewed.
Not only did his average patronage increase from 1,100 to 2,000 customers per week (in a 130 seat establishment) but he found that average spend INCREASED. People were willing to in fact pay MORE than the price on the menu.

At a time when Michellin star restaurants are slashing their prices to remain competitive in difficult times - and some are even closing their doors, Little Bay found that it was more popular than ever, and the risk its owner took paid healthy dividends in the form of clients and revenue.

As I have mentioned previously in this blog, recession is a time that calls for innovation, guts and innovation to survive.
It appears that Peter Ilic of Little Bay, has shed loads of each.

Monday, 11 May 2009

On yer Bike...

Well on Sunday I took the plunge and bought myself a bike...

I was rather surprised at just how busy the local cycle dealer was, and having done some reconnaissance last week, I knew it had been just as busy then.
But then I remembered that Mayor Boris had been pushing a campaign to get more Londoners onto bicylces, and judging by one overheard conversation, where a customer's employer were paying toward's her purchase if she cycled to work, it appears to be working.

So back to my piece of cycle engineering genius...
I bought a GT Outpost.
It is a great bike and I look forward to using it in the coming weeks and months around Wimbledon and the local parks. But having cycled it home today - I can tell you, I am going to need a lot of work on my fitness!

Sunday, 10 May 2009

London Life in a Tube Train carriage

It was very soon after my first arrival in London in 2002 that I was given a heads up, or word of advice... "No matter what you look like when you leave the house, you will always find someone else in London who looks stranger than you." And this has always been true.

But this evening, as I took a tube train from West Brompton to Wimbledon, I was confronted by something truly surreal - like I had entered the set of some futuristic Western movie...

i entered the carriage more or less in the middle, and out of the corner of my eye spotted something strange to my left. There, at the front of the carriage were two wrestlers - suited up with Lycra pants and fantastic masks - and one even sporting a bare chest.

I smiled to myself and looked to the other end of the carriage. At this point I nearly choked laughing - at that end of the carriage were two fully costumed Mexicans! Dressed up complete with ponchos, over-sized sombreros and moustaches these two fellows cut a fantastic picture.

And in the middle of the carriage, amongst this surreal mayhem and with my imagination trying to catch up to the reality of this microcosm in a tube carriage, a father played clapping games with his daughter as she lay in her prams, gurgling and laughing at him, and mimicking his clapping.

What a treat - and what a fantastic life this is, this life that is London.

You'd be content if the story ended there...
But just after parsons Green station, the Mexicans decided to venture down the carriage, in something resembling a stand off, and face up to the Wrestlers...
The other passengers on the carriage trembled in fright, fearful of what might happen as these 4 fellows face each other down...
Well - turns out that whilst they didn't know each other directly - they appeared to all be heading to the same party in Fulham, and so it was with much chatter and boisterous laughter that they all got off together at Putney Bridge.

somehow the rest of the journey didn't seem quite as enthralling....

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Damned when they do, and weak when they don't

One of the Prides of London are it's very many football clubs.
Two of my local clubs have achieved promotion this year - AFC Wimbledon being promoted from the Blue Square Conference South league as Champions, and Brentford returning to League One as the Champions of League 2.

And this week London hosted two Champions League semi-final matches in the space of two days.

So there is a lot of football pride and excellence in the City.

Today however was a day for newspaper headlines and sensationalised photographs. In case you didn't see the match, Chelsea were knocked out of the competition by a goal scored in the 3rd minute of injury time last night, and the main contention is that the Norwegian referee dismissed no less than 4 penalty claims - any of which would probably have been given more times than dismissed on any other day, in any other game. I am not a Chelsea supporter, but I understand their dismay.

However, the players vented their frustration and anger at the referee is scenes that some commentators have described as "outrageous" and "unacceptable".

So when was the last time you had a bad day at the office? When was the last time that you put your heart and soul into something at the office and had it torn to shreds, broken and crushed to dust in front of your eyes by someone or something beyond or control - a dream shattered through no fault of your own?
And how did YOU react? If you didn't react with shock, horror, anger, shouting, screaming then was your heart really in the project in the first place?

By no means are these actions condonable - but they are understandable when you have worked your socks off and had that effort trampled on.

And so it is with the players last night. I don't agree with what they did - but I do understand it. And in honesty - I probably would have done the same thing - especially knowing my own reactions to some things on the sports field.

These players who earn more in 7 days than I earn in three years actually showed that they have passion and love for their work - not that they are just there to make up the numbers and earn fat salaries to spend frivilously. And indeed - had they gone down quietly, you can be sure that the critics would have marked them spineless, money grabbing and without passion.

No, what they did is probably not right, and we would never teach our kids to react in that manner - but honestly would we have acted any different - and in fact have we ourselves acted differently in similar situations in our places of work?

Let them who are without blame, cast the first stone...
I am not sure there are many people who could or should be casting stones.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Finding strength in adversity

Until a few days ago when flying pigs began to sneeze in Mexico, the world news appeared firmly in the grip of the R-word, RECESSION. The Credit Crunch was the phrase coined to describe a lack of liquidity - initially in world markets, but very quickly followed by the wallets of John Q Public.

The worst economic downturn since the great Depression - perhaps even worse!

I was roaming the Internet in my usual haphazard manner, and found that the founder of Tesco Stores in the UK, Sir Jack Cohen, had been commemorated by a Blue Plaque (famous in London as place markers of historical features). I read his story on the English Heritage website, and it struck a chord...

The roots of his success were his entrepreneurial spirit. He took his demobilisation money (all £30 of it) after he was demobilised from the Royal Flying Corps, and in 1919 acquired a market stall in Hackney and began selling surplus foods. His first day saw him make a profit of £1, from sales of £4. Very quickly he developed a successful business strategy, and the first TESCO branded product, TESCO tea appeared in 1924.
The first Tesco store was opened in North London in 1929 - the year of the great Depression. By 1939, Sir Jack had acquired 100 stores...

In their last financial statement TESCO PLC decalred annual Turnover of £51,8bn, had 3,956 stores in 14 global markets and employed 440,000 staff globally.

All because Sir Jack Cohen took £30 and instead of hiding under his matress when the world went mad, he trusted his instinct and God given ability and dared to believe in himself.

Like anything in life, we are not proven by how we handle prosperity, it is within the fire of adversity that our spirit and our worth is forged.
Right now here in London, adversity is to be seen just about on every street corner. And yet that "British Bulldog" mentality and spirit appears strangely lacking, though I cannot say why.

But like Sir Jack, I would certainly like to take my £30 out from under the matress and see how I can change my world.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Beyond the Final Frontier

It feels strangely fitting that Star Trek is due for release in the UK on the 8th May - this coming Friday.

Having returned to London after 9 months away, it does feel like a strangely alien planet - a New Frontier. It's strangely daunting - being in a place where everything is familiar, not much has changed... and yet this is but a shell perhaps of what I knew...

It seems that every shop has the word SALE or CLEARANCE emblazoned from across its window, from one side to the other, like some strange Klingon regiment had plastered it across our City. And where usually these words would fade in time, they seem permanent, with the percentages of the sale just changing - usually upward.

The streets appear - well, quieter. Like the population are aware of imminent attack, and are staying indoors. Well, the attack is from this strange force we keep hearing about - "Recession" - and people do seem to be genuinely nervous. Perhaps the greatest indictment of this "quiet" is to be found in the car park behind Morrisons (previously Somerfield) in Wimbledon... and the fact is that you CAN find parking in that car park these days...!

So this is the New World. A world beyond the final frontier seemingly, a strange new place, where if pigs don't fly, they have influenza, where still being in business makes you a successful business and breaking even makes you an exception.
This is the world I have returned to...

So to break the ice slightly, and distract you from this doom and gloom... here's a trailer from the REAL Star Trek...

Beam me up, Scotty!