Monday, 29 March 2010

Pointing the Finger

Let’s face it, in this life, lots of things go wrong. Every day. You ladder your tights. You get to work to find out you’ve ran out of coffee. You get to the gym to learn that your yoga class has been cancelled. When these little incidents happen, quite often all you can do is shrug your shoulders and say, “shit happens”.
Even when it’s the small stuff, some people find it easier to point the finger of blame than admit that it just isn’t their day. This is particularly true of Londoners. How dare their yoga teacher get ill? Which bloody idiot put that hedge there? Why didn’t the supermarket wave the coffee in front of my eyes when I walked in? What, am I supposed to be psychic and remember what I need?
The blamers bitch and moan under their breath about the said offender. Okay, so no-one’s likely to lose their job or doubt their own worthiness on this planet over it. But what really bugs me is when people are blamed for the big things, the things that could end their careers . Even when there was nothing (or certainly very little) that they could have done about it.
I know this is a controversial subject, but bear with me. Since living in London I have worked in the social care sector and like to think I have an insiders’ view about the job that social workers and probation officers do. And I happen to think it is a bloody hard one. When I was younger and pondering what career path to take, both these professions attracted me. Then I found out more about them. Most social workers and probation officers I know have got caseloads so big they struggle to see the individuals under their care for more than about 15 minutes a week. Then there’s the paperwork. And meetings. A majority of social workers and probation officers would welcome an admin amnesty. It might actually give them the opportunity to do some real work with people rather than just write action plans, risk assessments and talking to other professionals about what should be done. Only problem is, no one has the time to do what should be done. They are too busy chasing their tails trying to reach stupid meaningless deadlines which might tick a few boxes but don’t actually do anything to help the individual, or the community, that is at risk.
Take Jon Venables for example. He has been recalled to prison. All of a sudden there is a public outcry. He should never have been let out. Okay, he was originally sent to prison for a horrific crime. He was found guilty. He was sentenced. He was granted parole with certain conditions. He broke those conditions and has been recalled to prison. Surely the media attention this case attracted should not stop him being treated the same as other criminals being managed by the criminal justice system for similar offences? If you don’t like it, I suggest you join a like-minded organisation and campaign to have the system overhauled.
What really gets my goat is the suggestion that the probation officer hasn’t been doing their job properly and should be fired. Why? Because they recalled someone to prison who breached their parole conditions? Because they weren’t able to brainwash someone and completely change their psyche? Because at some point in their career they decided to work with a particularly difficult client group? Jon Venables would have done the things he did no matter who his probation officer was. If you want to point the finger of blame, point it at him. Just leave the harassed professional alone. If they haven’t done their job properly, I’m sure it will be picked up on by their boss, not some journalist from a dodgy tabloid.
Of course this kind of finger pointing happens to those working in children’s services too. I saw a recent case on the news where a whole heap of professionals ranging from the police to social workers covering half the Midlands stood up to publicly apologise for a case of child abuse that was not dealt with as it should have been. Maybe harassed social workers missed the signs, people slipped through the net. I don’t know. But what the news programme I watched this story on failed to comment on was that these people, who no doubt went into their respective professions thinking they could change the world for the better before being hit by a wall of red tape and bureaucracy, did not commit any crime. They didn’t harm anyone. They certainly didn’t abuse anyone. Their crime is that they failed to read between the lines and put two and two together.
The same can be said about Baby Peter. What happened to that little boy was... well, words can’t describe what it was. Haringey Council were scrutinised mercilessly for years after for their failures in this case. Heads rolled. People were blamed for his death. Not because they had any intention for a child to die. But because they missed the signs. I have no doubt that any person who might have clicked that something so terrible was happening to that little boy would have taken action. But they didn’t see it. Any they will live with that for the rest of their lives.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important that professionals learn from these cases, and the many others that go unreported by the media where maybe a situation could have been prevented. But please remember, before you point the finger of blame, that these people are not criminals. They are not abusers and murderers. They are people who wanted to help others, to make our society a better place. Their big mistake is to believe that they will be free to do their jobs properly without the scrutiny of government figures and the glaring light of the media, hungry and ready to pounce at their first stumble.
I’m just glad I didn’t make the same career choice that they did.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

As Time Goes By...

I admit that I am one of those annoying people who often uses that irritating phrase, “patience is a virtue.” Not that I proclaim to be particularly virtuous, but being patient is a useful quality, especially as it can reduce stress levels if you happen to find yourself in particularly frustrating situations.
Which, funnily enough, you often do when you live in London. Even though the city and everyone in it seems to move at a million miles a second most of the time, quite often you find you have to quickly apply the breaks…and wait. For. A. Long. Time.
I have examples.
A couple of weeks ago I called my GP surgery. I made what I thought was a simple, reasonable request: to see my usual GP before or after the hours of 9 and 4. I heard the secretary clicking away on her keyboard on the other end of the phone. There was a pause.
“I can fit you in on Monday at 5.30. As in Monday 23rd March.”
As in, I haven’t seen my GP yet. Two weeks later. Okay, so if it was an emergency I’m sure I could have seen someone sooner, but still…two weeks? I might have forgotten what it was I needed to see her about by then!
Another example.
About a week and a half ago I went out to dinner with some of the girls. One of them had chosen a lovely venue (The Cork and Bottle just off Leicester Square if you are interested – lovely food and wine) and booked us a table in a little alcove at the back of the bar. Hungry and thirsty, we all went up to the bar to order our food. One friend went for a simple salad. The other went for veggie Shepherds’ Pie with French bread on the side. I chose the posh sausage and chips with salsa. We settled at our table and sipped our Beaujolais. My food arrived first. The girls encouraged me to tuck in. So I did. And a good job too, as the next plate emerged over five minutes later. My sausage and chips had all but disappeared by the time the third meal showed up. When we had all finished our meal the waitress appeared to inform us that the bread was on the way. We asked if it was on the Eurostar yet or if it had only just left the oven in the boulangerie. Actually we didn’t, but my friend asked for her money back. We were kind of over the need for bread by then.
A couple of days later my mum came down to London for the day. Two hours before she was due to arrive I had a hospital appointment. I suggested to Him Indoors we go to the hospital first and then have a spot of brekkie at his favourite caff before heading to Kings Cross to meet mum. He agreed.
The hospital had other ideas, though.
Half an hour after my appointment time the receptionist announced the doctor was not even in the building yet, so all appointments were at least half an hour delayed. Funnily we had already picked up on that one. Fifteen minutes later I was summoned by one of his “team” for an assessment. More like to make it look like he wasn’t that late after all, no doubt, but I complied and managed to see the doctor an hour after he was due to see me. By the time I had been seen, breakfast wasn’t on the menu anymore. But at least I was better off than the poor folk who were still waiting – the waiting time was up to two hours when I left.
Tummies rumbling, we headed to the tube station. Only five stops to Kings Cross. Shouldn’t have taken more than, say, 15 minutes, absolute tops? Unless, of course, there are signalling problems. By the time we arrived at the train station we could both quote the adverts plastered inside our carriage by heart.
Just on time, we met my mum and headed over to Piccadilly for a spot of lunch before mooching around the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy. Amazingly, lunch went without a hitch. Less surprisingly, there was a bit queue to get into the exhibition. We hadn’t been able to get pre-booked tickets, so we joined the end of the snaking line.
And waited.
Mum went to sit down whilst us young spring chickens held the fort.
We waited.
It started to rain.
We waited a bit more.
Eventually we got to the front of the outside queue, and were permitted to enter the next stage of the queue under a marquee.
We waited a bit more. Him Indoors went to the loo. The queue shuffled forward a bit – but not so much that he couldn’t find me when he returned.
And… we waited.
Finally, the end was in sight. “I can see the admissions office!” I cried, overjoyed.
The woman in front turned to me. “That’s not really the admissions office. It’s a mirage.”
But it wasn’t. Sure enough, we were soon within the four walls of the building. There were a mere handful of people in front of us. I started to get excited.
Then one of the gallery attendants approached us.
“No more ticket sales for ten to fifteen minutes.”
I decided to go to the loo. Guess what? There was a queue. But when I got back to the other queue…the ticket office was open again. And we were next in line.
Was it a good exhibition? It was excellent. Was it worth queuing for one and a half hours? Losing ninety minutes of my life just standing there, occasionally shuffling forwards? Mmm. You’ll have to get back to me about that one.
The good news is that I had a lovely day out with my mum. After a spot of shopping in Covent Garden and dinner in St Pancras Station (they have a Carluccio's, don’t you know?) we waved her off on her way back up north. I told her to give me a call when she got in. Sure enough, when she got home about an hour and a half later, she sent me a text to tell me she has home safe and had had a lovely day.
I was pleased – not just because she was home safe and happy, but because it only took her an hour and a half to get home. Of course that is the amount of time it should have taken her, but two weeks previously I had been travelling back to London from my parents’ and it took me nearly six hours. Yes, six hours for a journey that should have taken a quarter of that time. Why? Because of a power failure in the Hitchin area. We had been stuck on the train for four hours without power or air conditioning. Or water.
I just hope to God I don’t have to wait that long for anything again in the near future. Or ever would be nice. Somehow, though, I’ve got a feeling I’ll be drumming my fingers on the nearest hard surface and sighing loudly again soon.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Come Dancing

One thing I love about London is its nightlife. Not all your big fancy super-clubs like Ministry and Fabric, but all the little random nights in random places, full of random people.
Take my last two nights out for example (if only because they happened within a week of each other and make me sound like a social butterfly). Just over a week ago I went to a night called “How Does It Feel to Be Loved” in the function room of a pub in Brixton. Although the music was not quite to my taste (sorry Mr DJ but too much emphasis on obscure 60’s Soul and not enough of the Northern variety – please take note) it was a very pleasant night out. It did feel a bit like a student’s union, but that’s okay, because I used to like going to my student’s union and went to a couple of nights out in such bars when I moved to London. Cheap and cheerful, as was this night at the bargain price of £4 (for members, darling).
What really made it was the crowd. The atmosphere was relaxed. People were laughing and talking to strangers. Men and women danced together, not gyrating their hips together like some bad version of Dirty Dancing, but dancing how they wanted to dance. Okay so a couple of people were clearly on the pull, but their advances were playful and harmless, not groping and intimidating.
I had fun.
Last night I ventured out for a boogie once more, but of a slightly different nature. With stockings with a seam up the back, elbow length satin gloves and a mini hat and veil accessorising my look I headed off to the Blitz Party near Old Street. Held in an obscure warehouse-type building just off the main road, armed service uniforms, pencil skirts and tea dresses were the dress code. Straight hair was out and carefully curled hair was in. Moustaches turned up at the end. You get the picture.
So, after a rather tasty Gin Fizz we headed to the dance floor and picked up some swinging moves as we listened to a bit of Vera Lynn and a couple of impressive live acts (it’s easy to pick up – just kind of swing your legs out at the knees and pretend to wash a car). Although the “rations” looked tasty (scotch eggs and ham and cheese bloomer sandwiches) I decided to spend my housekeeping on a selection of cocktails priced at £6 ½ (cute, eh?). A couple of rounds in I was well into my roaring forties groove.
Sadly, some people can’t take their drink. Put it down to the stresses of the war or the lack of nutrition the Blitz’s diet offered (told you I got into it) but the flow of gin, Spitfire and champers was a bit too much for some. Even in their finery people soon forgot the simple etiquette of moving through a crowded enclosed space (gently placing your hand on someone’s shoulder to warn them you are coming through if you were wondering) and elbows became a weapon of choice. One couple managed to ruffle our feathers on more than one occasion, barging into members of my party, spilling my drink down my blouse (honestly!). They then decided to have a spin on the dance floor, which is fair enough, but without any regard for anyone else, bouncing off anyone who happened to get in the way of their moves. When queuing to collect our coats they even had the audacity to try and push in front of us. Luckily my friend Leila was there to push right back past them and put her own elbows to good use (well done Leila!).
Then there were the men. We had concluded upon arrival that there was a very small quantity of single straight men. Not that we were looking, of course. But, as the liquor flowed, hands started to rove. My arse got pinched. Someone gestured squeezing Leila’s boobs. Another chap took a real shine to my other friend Laura and collapsed onto her in some kind of attempt of dance before wandering off into the crowd trying out his pulling technique on other women as he went.
Maybe all those stockings and heels were too much for them. It certainly was for me by the end of the night. Being a tall lady I am not accustomed to heels and my feet were less than grateful for my efforts at wartime glamour. Having said that, getting all dressed up was a nice change, as was the music and dancing.
Shame the crowd who joined me in that function room in Brixton hadn’t been here though. That would have been the icing on the cake. But that would have been having my cake and eating it I suppose.
My quest for the perfect night out in London continues. Watch this space.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Constructive Complaining

If you have read this blog more than once, you have probably figured out for yourself that I am quite proficient at moaning. Especially about my beloved London and it’s weird and wonderful cocktail of inhabitants. It is true, I like a good moan and London gives me plenty of opportunity. But since I turned 30 I think this moaning has taken a different guise. Constructive complaining. Let me explain.
A few months ago I had reason to complain to my local council (see “I Know Who I Blame” for a bit of back-story). I first made my complaint in December and was told I would receive a response within 10 days. A fortnight later I called again and left a voice message asking why I had not had a response about my complaint. A few days later I received a letter thanking me for contacting the council via email (!) and that I would receive a response within ten days.
Christmas came and went. I received a letter telling me that my case had been heard in court (despite being informed the court summons had been cancelled due to an agreement for me to pay my arrears by direct debit – long story) and a liability order had been implemented.
I wrote a snotty email.
A few days later I received a letter detailing my contact with the council, but not actually answering my complaint. I phoned the person who had written to me and was told she had been tasked with investigating the situation but not actually dealing with my complaint. I asked her if she could look at the email and respond to my questions.
Eventually, she admitted that mistakes had been made. The council admitted that I had been ill-advised at several points throughout my dealings with them over my council tax and that it was unfortunate my case had been heard in the court where I work despite me being advised this would not happen. She asked what I wanted to happen. I said I wanted an apology.
About a week later I received an email. Attached was a letter apologising for the inconvenience their mistakes had caused me. And offered me compensation of £25.
My new found hobby doesn’t stop there. A few weeks ago I went to a Blues bar for a friends’ birthday. My friend told me to get there before 8pm to prevent me having to pay. I got there shortly after 7.
“That’s ten pounds please.”
“What? My friend has booked the bar upstairs and told me it was free before 8.”
“That’s not what the manager told me.”
Slightly bewildered and a little pissed off I went up to the party, ten pounds poorer. My friend greeted me with a beer. I told him about the door fee and warned him his other guests might not be best pleased. Confused, he looked at the bar’s programme. Quite clearly it stated that entry was free before 8.
Fired up I went downstairs and showed the programme to the doorman. He shook his head.
“Sorry, I was told by the manager to charge £10 after 7.”
“But it’s here in black and white.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
“Well, can I speak to the manager?”
As I waited for him to return with the man in charge, a handful of other revellers arrived.
“That’s ten pounds please.”
“But the website says it’s free before 8.”
“Yeah my friend told me that too.”
Naturally I had to intervene and told them about my plight. Before long I had a throng of about half a dozen complainants on my side. When the door man returned and saw our protest his face fell.
“I can’t find the manager.”
“So what are you going to do about it?” I was feeling a bit cocky with a huddle of supporters behind me.
“Yeah, what are you going to do?” someone piped up behind me.
The doorman sighed. “Well, I guess I have to let you in for free.”
Elated, I held out my hand for my reimbursement and headed up to the bar for a well-earned Whiskey Sour.
The next day I was at the British Film Institute with some friends. I enthused about my new-found hobby with real passion. Then, digging into our posh dried beany bar snacks, I came across a shard of plastic.
I was in my element. “Let me handle this ladies.
Excuse me! I found this piece of plastic in our food.” I gave the bar man a knowing look. “I could have eaten it.”
The bar man took the cup of dehydrated pulses apologetically.
“I wonder what we will get for free for that one.” I was almost giddy with anticipation.
A few minutes later the barman returned. With a fresh cup of beans. No freebie or reimbursement, just more beans. I was a little disappointed.
But don’t despair reader. I am not going to give up my right to complain. Only two days ago I filled in a complaint form after being stranded just outside Stevenage on an over-crowded train for over four hours (it made page 9 of the Evening Standard on Monday if you are interested). And today...I got my letter of apology from the council. Along with a check for 25 pounds.
You see; constructive complaining pays. Give it a go. Who knows what you might get out of it.