The flea hopped its way down the train and landed on the back of my hand. I looked at the flea and the flea looked at me. At least, I assume it did. It is hard to tell if a flea is looking you in the eye.

I wondered how many times the flea had travelled from Norwich to London and back.

Then I thought about poetry. John Donne’s poem about a flea in particular. In which he attempts to woo a potential lover with the erotic notion that their blood is already intermingled in the belly of the flea, so what more sin could there be in a less intermediated mingling of fluids?

As a chat-up line this fails. She kills the flea with a sharp crack of her fingernails. As a rule I would recommend avoiding insect-imagery in verbal foreplay.

The flea lingered on my hand. Its belly bulging with the blood of my fellow travellers. It was not an erotic thought. I carefully lifted my other hand and tested the edge of my fingernail.

The flea… jumped.

Coach G. Seat 45.

I felt itchy all the way home.



“World faces global wine shortage” is a striking headline. It probably got more readers than “Wine likely to get more expensive”.

I predict (without the aid of Met Office-style supercomputers) that this crisis will not have a major impact on most people’s lives. In fact it might help the barley-growers of Norfolk if consumption of beer goes up to offset the wine deficit.

There were a lot of grapes on the vine in my garden this year, but the birds got them. Maybe there is a global bird glut.

Hey Jude


Whether you were affected by today’s storm or not, you can’t say that you didn’t know about it in advance. It was harder to avoid the storm warnings than to avoid the weather system itself.

This was not like the ‘hurricane’ in 1987 when the first I knew about it was when I arrived at work in Leicester that morning and someone mentioned that it had apparently been very windy in London during the night.

Since then I have switched the radio on when I drive to work.

I’ve been wondering whether the Met Office had to submit a detailed cost benefit case for their huge investment in computing power over the last two decades. Then I tried to work out whether a single event like today’s storm could prove that the investment was worth it…

…but I ran out of steam after trying to estimate the net saving from 15 million people delaying their travel plans rather than taking to the roads, buses, trains and planes and getting stuck / delayed / injured / killed / angry / stressed / tired versus the lost productivity when they didn’t appear at work minus the work that they managed to do at home between refreshing the news pages and looking at twitter #ukstorm2013.

Finally I concluded that it was best if storms occur when many schools are taking their half term break, but I’m not sure if that factor is included in the Met Office model.



iPhone screenshot showing no apps downloaded near me











Or perhaps my family and neighbours have better things to do…

Walls and Malls


Last week I was promoting our new business venture at a conference in the pleasant city of York, at a mediocre hotel overlooking the river just a hundred metres from a former workplace of mine.

Today Twitter, on our business feed, has presented me with a ‘promoted’ suggestion to “Invest in Perth”, Scotland’s newest city and another former workplace of mine.

It seems that my working life continues to follow some well-worn ruts.

I decided to follow @investinperth anyway. It is a very nice place and I did help open the wonderful concert hall there a few years ago, so I’d like to go back and see how it’s doing one day, although I’m not sure that the scale of our business will be sufficient to get @investinperth tweeting happily.

Whilst in York my colleague asked me why the city walls were in such good condition compared to the crumbling and incomplete city walls of Norwich.

I had to confess that I didn’t know. Is it because York was actively using its walls for defence for a couple of hundred years longer than Norwich? Or is it because the citizens of Norwich couldn’t be bothered to look very far for building materials and plundered the walls to build mobile phone shops and glittering malls? (York seemed relatively poorly provided with glittering malls). I was able to recall that the York city walls weigh 100,000 tonnes, slightly more than half a tonne per citizen, which is always a useful fact.

Does Perth have a city wall? Glittering malls? Is this an investment opportunity?



I’m not going to make any excuses for my recent failure to post. Instead I’ll offer you a link to another aspiring writer who is trying to make her way in the dying business of journalism in order to earn enough money to look after her ageing parents in the near future when they are no longer fit to fend for themselves…

You can read her latest work here.

Saturday afternoon. I went to pick some blackberries. Drove up a stony lane to the grassy field that serves as a car park for a typical Norfolk church. Flint faced, square tower, yew trees, windswept hilltop overlooking the grey North Sea and Europe’s largest gas terminal.

There was one other car parked in the meadow. A shiny BMW.  And a man standing in very smart suit with a red buttonhole and matching pocket handkerchief. He looked up expectantly from his phone as I swept around the corner.

He seemed a bit crestfallen when I got out of the car in my blackberry-picking clothes and fished a walking stick, heavy gloves and a couple of plastic boxes out of the boot. I think that he was expecting bridesmaids.

He turned back to his phone. But this was a not-spot where neither Blackberry nor Apple could show even a single bar.

It was just after 2pm. I hoped that the wedding didn’t start until 3 and he would have time to realise he was in the wrong place. There were at least two other bleak churches on hilltops within a five-mile radius. He turned back to his shiny car and his futile phone.

I went off to pick fruit and watch the deer watching me across the stubble.

When I returned ninety minutes later with purple hands and scratches there were no cars. And no wedding in progress.

I hoped that he was just the Best Man. Not the Groom.

Tree top story


This news story – which fortunately has a happy ending – highlights why Norfolk is a special place.

1. The trees are aggressive.

2. A pub in the middle of nowhere can be full of people having breakfast before 9am.

3. The quote: “it pretty much stopped the car”. Pretty much. Not entirely.

Video nasty


Recording yourself practicing a musical instrument is inevitably disappointing. I have discovered this in the past. For some reason it never sounds the same and somehow the recording has picked up a lot more errors and squeaks than I heard when I was playing.

But an audio recording is benign, compared to a video recording.

I wanted to listen to myself playing a piece on the saxophone. I just couldn’t get the timing quite right and thought that a recording would help me spot where I was going wrong. The nearest gadget to hand did not appear to have an audio recorder, so I propped it on my music stand and used the video recorder instead.

Why did no one ever tell me what I do with my eyes when I’m playing?

During the straightforward sections I stare. Or rather I STARE WITH CRAZY BULGING EYES. Before a high note, I signal my intention with my eyebrows, raising them slightly in advance to a level proportionate to the pitch of the note. Worst of all, when I am improvising or playing from memory, my eyes roll up and my pupils disappear as I search the corner of my right hemisphere for the next note.

No. I am not going to post the video for you to see.

Earning a crust


I bought some fuel for the car and received vouchers for a free pizza.

I am old enough to know that there is no such thing as a “free” pizza. It will be a pizza with strings attached… So I read the small print on the website to find out exactly what I was giving to BP and Pizza Express in exchange for my Classic American Hot and Doughballs starter.

To keep the calculation simple I exercised my right to opt out of direct marketing where possible. I didn’t click the boxes which would allow Pizza Express to send me information “about products and offers” which might interest me. This just left the mandatory box to click accepting BP’s terms and conditions and privacy policy.

The terms and conditions told me that Calzone and Calabrese pizzas were excluded from the offer and I could only use my unique offer code once etc. The privacy policy told me that my personal information [my name and email address] would be used “to provide the information, products and services you request” [the 12 digit unique code for my free pizza]…AND it also said they would use my data to send me “information on additional products and/or services which BP reasonably thinks may be of interest to you”. The use of the word “reasonably” demonstrates that a lawyer was required to craft this sentence.

So the deal is: I exchange my email address for a pizza and starter. At my preferred restaurant the dough balls cost £3.45  and the American Hot costs £9.95 – a total of £13.40. If I assume that BP did a deal with Pizza Express and got the meals at a discount of, say, 75% (because PE will make plenty of margin on my Coca Cola and my dinner companion, as well as some repeat business if all goes well) then my personal data is worth about £3.35 to BP.

£3.35 is probably quite good value for a warm marketing lead… BP know that I buy diesel fuel and sometimes visit their service stations (I feel slightly pleased that I managed to outwit their marketing machine by inadvertently not using my Nectar card when I bought the fuel that earned the voucher – so they know less about me than they might have done). When I redeem the pizza voucher in London they will connect this with the fact that I bought the fuel in Hull and therefore place me in a particular customer segment (“Northern diaspora”?). They also already know that I use a Mac computer and a Chrome browser from when I completed the form, which also places me in a particular customer segment (“Not Microsoft Windows”?) and their cookies will tell them a bit about the websites I came from and go to when I visit their site.

I am looking forward to seeing what products BP reasonably think will interest me, but I used my special “Spam only” email address where I rarely log on, so it may be some time before I report it here.

I’ve just been reading a list of “10 things you should keep to yourself at work” – rather than give you a link (because you’d have to register to get to the page) I’ll just list them here:

The 10 things you shouldn’t do at work are: cause a drama, spread rumours, get jealous, have sex, let your personal life intrude, misuse confidential information, mention that you are thinking of leaving, talk about politics or religion, discuss your or anyone else’s salary and share your facebook, twitter or tumblr postings with your colleagues.

Which left me wondering a) what people are meant to do most of the time and b) what experience the author had to compile such a comprehensive list. It reads like a very concise story of working life. Not mine, I hasten to add.

This has prompted me to write a list of 7 things that you should do at work.

In no particular order, here they are:

  • Listen carefully and stretch the pauses in discussions. Most people are quite bad at saying what they mean so it makes sense to pay attention to what they don’t say as well as what they do say. Use silence as the shovel to let other people dig their own holes.
  • Ask a few very good questions. No one likes someone who interrupts and asks questions all the time, but you can gain respect by keeping fairly quiet and asking one or two thought-provoking questions when there is a pause in the flow (but they have to be good questions, not ones that have already been answered when you weren’t listening – see point above).
  • Keep your passwords secure and your files backed up. One day you will be glad you bothered.
  • Make the most of your time… and anyone else’s. If you are in a meeting it’s time to finish when things start being repeated. If you are working on your own it’s time to stop when you aren’t concentrating.
  • Be curious and find out why things happen. If something doesn’t seem to make sense, it probably doesn’t make sense. It’s often easier to do what other people do, but they might all be wrong.
  • Avoid unnecessary travel. It is easy to confuse the effort of going somewhere with actually doing something useful…
  • …but don’t miss necessary travel. Sometimes twenty-five minutes face to face is worth a lot. Especially if you spend twenty-three minutes listening.

What other tips have you got?

Back story


The Prime Minister and I have a number of things in common, so I was pleased to hear that we also share a back problem.

I suppose that his bulging disk might have been caused by the mighty burden of high office. Mine is usually caused by putting on my socks or getting something out of the kitchen cupboard.

It was no surprise to hear that his back problem had flared up whilst on holiday. Mine almost always recurs when we are on holiday. It first happened when I was in my early twenties, whilst staying in the Lake District. On one memorable occasion I spent a week hobbling around the Edinburgh festival with a walking stick, bent sideways so far that I could not remain standing unaided (this did not cause me to appear conspicuous amongst the regular inhabitants of Edinburgh).

David Cameron probably has lots of people giving him advice. I very much doubt that he needs mine, but here it is… Walk a lot. The gentle rocking of the pelvis will ease the pain and realign your vertebrae. You could also do some exercises to strengthen your core muscles, but I’ve lost my instruction sheet so I can’t remember what the exercises are. Oh, and don’t spent a lot of time sitting at your desk or in meetings.

Chin up


Jeremy Paxman grows a beard and it makes the newspaper headlines. I grow a beard and I am met with derision from my own family.

It was all because I watched Skyfall on the plane travelling to our holiday destination.

“Daniel Craig looks good in a beard,” I thought. So I resolved to stop shaving whilst on vacation… which proves I have learnt nothing from my swimming trunks experiment after seeing Craig emerge from the sea in Casino Royale.

Mrs R hated my beard.

“It’s like kissing a doormat,” she explained and refused to kiss me again for the whole duration.

I was secretly pleased. A doormat has stout, manly bristles that can scrape mud off your wellies. I want a chin like that, but when I ran my hand over my face it just felt like a sparsely haired rodent, with bald patches.

“Stop touching your face!” Exclaimed Mrs R at regular intervals whenever we sat at a restaurant table or at a picturesque spot.

For a beard novice the compulsion to touch is irresistible. It is like meeting a new person and being allowed to touch them quite intimately.

I was hoping for a rich blonde-mixed-with-auburn colour, which I vaguely recalled from my last attempt at facial hair more than a decade ago (inspired by a picture of a Viking) but this time my beard was mainly grey, with a few bits that just looked dirty, as if someone had wiped their wellies on my face.

After a couple of weeks I shaved it off. I sat down with the family and didn’t say anything…

…Mrs R didn’t notice my smooth cheeks until several hours later, when I ventured a goodnight kiss.

“Oooh!” She raised her eyebrows. “You’ve shaved… You look ten years younger.” (I would have been more pleased about this remark if it had been made the moment I emerged clean-shaven that morning).

None of the (mostly grown-up) children noticed for more than two days, despite the fact that I was with them all the time. Which proves something or other.

“Due to adverse weather customers are advised to take extra care on the station concourse”.

When did “rain” become “adverse weather”?  I enjoyed the wet weather yesterday. The vegetables in my garden appreciated the relief. I didn’t meet anybody who was complaining about the welcome showers in London where residual heat from the last few weeks is still making life uncomfortable.

“Adverse weather” should be reserved for genuinely disruptive phenomena, like snow in the cricket season and tornadoes in suburbia. Weather that is normal for our temperate island home – like rain, high winds and the occasional warm sunny spell – does not merit hyperbole.

A more sensible announcement would be: “please take care because the rain has made the floor slippery”. Although, as I stepped carefully across the glistening tiles, I wasn’t sure that an announcement was really needed.

At last Facebook has stopped showing me adverts for single women in Queensland and discount vouchers for supermarkets in New Zealand. My browsing habits have never displayed a focus on either or these, honestly!

Now all I get are adverts for insurance products aimed at people over 55 and tourist attractions within 20 miles of my home in Norfolk.

The thing is I have never told FB where I live. I’d be surprised if the IP address policy at my ISP would make such geographical precision possible.

Can they be triangulating my position using the location of my friends? How clever!



I unloaded the shopping from the car and wondered what the faint hissing noise was. Once I’d unpacked the bags and put all the groceries away I concluded that I had not purchased an angry snake or a leaking bottle of pop.

But I had picked up a nail in the tyre of the car. It was not conveniently in the tread where a simple puncture repair could be effected. It was expensively in the sidewall, where the only remedy is to buy a new tyre.

Never mind. Of course it is always a tyre with plenty of tread left that gets ruined. This is possible proof of the existence of a deity with limited power and a wicked sense of humour.

The morning was scheduled to be busy, but I thought it would be a job of moments to jack up the vehicle and whip off the wheel to take to the friendly garage down the road.

An hour later I was sweatily whacking the wheel with a large hammer. All the wheelnuts came out easily but the wheel was stuck to the hub. It wouldn’t budge. With a sigh I found the footpump, replaced all the nuts and reinflated the tyre sufficiently to drive to the garage.

The mechanic had a larger hammer. The wheel was removed. The tyre was diagnosed dead. The replacement options were discussed.

“When do you need it by?”

“Today?… I’ve got to drive to London in the morning.”

There was some phoning around. A close match was found eventually… and a mere six hours later I was back on the drive with a shiny new tyre. My various jobs for the day in ruins and my eyes still watering at the price.

After a century of mass automotive transport, why do we still have car tyres which can be disabled by a nail?

Surely there must be a better way of joining two bits of wood?

Today I visited an office that I used to work in 23 years ago. I didn’t see anyone I knew. People move on so fast these days.

As soon as I walked into the building I recognised the smell. There is a canteen in the basement. It is called a “food court” now. They may have changed the name, but the menu must still be the same.

It’s been a busy and stressful few months, but I’m pleased to say that our new business venture is up and running.

You can glimpse what we’ve been doing here, but if you are school governor in Norfolk you will get a much better view of it in the next few weeks as we roll out to all the schools in the county.

If you are a school governor somewhere else in the UK, let me know and I’ll try to sell our services to your local authority or academy chain… It’s about time that Britain’s largest volunteer workforce started getting 21st century tools to make life easier.

Risk management


Did you see the pictures of the plane that parachuted to a gentle crash landing in a garden in Cheltenham last week?

Did you also wonder, like me, why don’t all planes have giant parachutes in case they crash? It seems obvious really. The same logic as having seven airbags in a car. You hope you won’t need them, they won’t be useful in all circumstances, but they only need to be useful once.

Why stop at planes? Why not fit large inflatable bags to boats and cruise liners?… I googled it. They already exist.

Inflatable crash helmets for cyclists? Yep – they already exist too.

What about airbags for elderly people who might fall and break their hip?… Google shows that these were invented and rolled out in Japan in 2008.

Risk management is all about reducing the probability of an accident (collision avoidance, good maintenance, careful assistance, evolution) and reducing the impact of the accident if it happens (parachutes, lifejackets and airbags). What more can we do?

Farenheit 451


In the last few days I have read a newspaper article and two separate blog postings about people who are discarding their CD collections because all their music is now stored digitally. They all claimed that they were motivated to declutter their homes and getting rid of all those CDs was helpful.

Writing as someone who has a number of CDs, a similar number of cassette tapes and a collection of vinyl records gathering dust around the house, I admire these people.

At some point I would like to declutter my home. I know that I can transfer all the music to a hard disk or into the cloud if I want. It would take a bit of time to upload them all, but it is quite feasible.

Books are a bigger decluttering challenge.

I have a lot of books. More than the CDs, cassettes and vinyl put together. Even the smallest book is larger than a CD. If I digitised all the books we could probably move to a smaller house. Or open a small, eclectic library.

But how can I digitise the books? I don’t want to repurchase them all as e-books (some of them might not be available anyway).

Does anyone have a suggestion that will help me migrate my books to a memory stick?