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Archive for July, 2012

I’ve lost count of how many people have tracked me down via facebook and linkedin. A couple of days ago I received an email from Barrie, someone I was at secondary school with. We haven’t communicated in 40 years and it was interesting to hear that we’d had similar interests over the years and that he’d read some of my Atari/Apple columns in Sound On Sound magazine among others.

My connection to Barrie goes back to our common interest in guitar playing. He was always better than me and an inspiration. I learned how to finger pick and play instrumental songs of the day including Classical Gas and Angie as well as most of the Simon and Garfunkel catalogue. A small group of us played most lunchtimes in what would now be the equivalent of yr 10 and yr 11 and that was the pinnacle of my ‘education’. Why? Because I hated secondary school due to the incessant bullying I was subjected to.

I started at Beal Grammar in 1967. I’d been a mouthy kid at Parkhill primary school and carried that attitude into my new school where it really fell flat. In no time, I had a reputation as someone with a mouth and nothing to back it up with. That made me a target – a big kid who couldn’t fight his way out of the proverbial paper bag. Then the bullying started, both physically and psychologically. If I wasn’t being hit between lessons and during the morning, afternoon and lunch breaks there was the perpetual threat of violence. It got to the point where I had to get out of the classroom before the teacher did at the end of a lesson. If I mistimed my escape I was hauled back into the room and beaten up. This went on for the best part of two years.

A number of kids were involved. Some hit me; others just set me up. The rest just stood and watched. It brings to mind the Edmund Burke (mis)quote: The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing. This also pertains to the teachers who knew what was going on and did virtually nothing. And I was too ashamed of my inability to fight back in any way, aside from verbally at times, to admit what was going on to my father.

Was this just boys being boys? Possibly. The beatings were never bad enough to break bones or hospitalise me but you can’t imagine the sheer terror of being set upon by a dozen kids day after day, being hit, kicked and crushed, unless you’ve been through it yourself. They always used a routine, a set-up that would lead to the beatings. Sometimes they left me alone. I was absolutely terrified.

It stopped when the classes were rejigged at the start of what would now be yr 10, the beginning of the two-year ‘O’ level courses. My confidence improved and I made two new circles of friends including Barrie. My real salvation was the guitar playing. I’ve been in touch briefly with some of these via friends reunited but have never met any of them since I left Beal in the mid-1970s.

Of those who participated in making my school life a living hell, one has apologised sincerely for his part. We’ve met up and stay in touch and I appreciate the contact. There are others who know where I am and could speak to me but choose not to. Probably better that way. I’d hate for them to have to relive my nightmare.

Has the experience had a long-term effect on me? Certainly. For many years it affected my ability to make friends. And I won’t take shit from anybody which can make me a very awkward person to deal with but someone you’d want on your side in an argument. Kind of ironic given where this behaviour stems from.

I never wanted my son to go through a similar experience so at seven years old, I took him to a karate class. He took to it like a duck to water and 17 years on (and a third dan black belt) he still trains. He’ll probably be shocked to read this blog but it might fill in a gap or two.

If you have kids and they’re being bullied in any way, shape or form, don’t ignore it. Don’t think that it’s character building and that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It doesn’t. It’s destructive. It scars for life. And I should know.

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One thing’s guaranteed after you’re made redundant. You have time on your hands.

To start with you take walks in the park or to the shops. Catch up with old friends. Dust off the Wii. Sit at home and watch tv. After a few days you start thinking about how much your home and family cost and how you can save money. Painlessly. Pretty soon you realise that just isn’t possible. If you’re lucky, your redundancy payment will cover your outgoings for some months but once it’s gone, it’s gone. This means the pressure is on you from day one to find some sort of job and income. And that’s when your self-esteem starts taking knocks.

First, you update your cv and upload it to the various on-line job agencies you’ve signed up with. You have a quick look at what’s available but decide you’re drastically overqualified for most of what’s on offer. You wait, patiently. Impatiently. Two weeks. Nothing. You start looking each day and actively chasing interviews, lowering your sights as you go. Still nothing. You look for other on-line agencies and find the same jobs appearing on different websites. You think to yourself, “OK – let’s find a part-time admin job to tide me over. There must be plenty of admin jobs.” True. But there are plenty of people looking for admin jobs, each of which has over 100 applicants. Some are just like you. Redundant. Unemployed. Including many, many people with an employment background in admin work. And they’re the ones getting these jobs.

To fill your time you look for easy fixes. Market research. To begin with you may get a few goes at this. Possibly £200 in total. Then nothing. There’s on-line surveys where you convert your precious time into pennies. You could always squander your savings on the various on-line gambling possibilities – poker, horses, football, spread betting – which I didn’t do but I thought about it.

Before you realise it, a couple of months have passed. No interviews. Not even a positive reply to the dozens, probably hundreds, of jobs you’ve applied for. The redundancy payment and your savings are starting to run out. Self-esteem? What’s that…

The above scenario is part of my experience. I had one job interview which, quite frankly, I failed to get through a mixture of nerves and attitude (see one of my previous blogs, The pressure of interviews). I also had a couple of months’ work at a print company but decided against a full-time job there.

I’m not a counsellor and there are others far better qualified to give advice than me. But here’s my 2p worth:

1. Accept the following:
Nobody owes you anything
Nobody is going to do anything for you
While this may not be totally true, it’s a good start. Learn to stand on your own two feet.

2. Make use of any employment advice centres. They can help in a variety of ways including getting your cv up to scratch, interview techniques, letter/email writing, useful contacts, etc. They will help you become work-ready.

3. Sign up for any benefits you’re entitled to. I didn’t but that was my choice.

4. Find free courses that will enhance your employment opportunities, many through additional practical experience and qualifications. Most local authorities offer these as do some community centres and organisations.

5. Think outside of the box. What skills do you have? How can they be used? Who needs them? Could you set yourself up as self-employed?

6. Treat finding a job as a job in itself. Get into a routine of putting aside time each day to do something positive in your quest to find employment.

7. Use some of your new-found spare time to indulge your hobbies, something you’ve promised yourself for years.

8. Don’t spend too much time on your own, sitting and thinking. Spend time with family and real friends. I was lucky – my first morning of unemployment was spent playing table-tennis courtesy of someone who knew I’d be sitting at home otherwise.

9. Cut your costs where you can but be careful not to sell assets at less than their true value. You only get to sell them once.

10. Stop beating yourself up. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. And you have the right to feel angry and resentful about your situation but don’t let that anger define you. Deep inside you’re still the same person that those around you relied upon not so long ago.

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Unless you have primary school kids you probably haven’t heard of Mad Science. Providing cool science experiments for after-school clubs and parties, Mad Science started in Canada over 25 years ago and is now franchised worldwide. My son worked for Mad Science before he landed a plum job in the States. When I saw an advert on gumtree I thought, “why not?” even though my son tried to convince me I was too old. Thanks!

That was back in March. Since then I’ve worked at their Easter camp, handled eight-week sessions at three after-school clubs and I’m now working on Summer camp. But the cherry on the top was my first solo party last Sunday: one hour with 40 kids!

The science behind the experiments isn’t the problem. It’s all about presentation, engaging kids from the start and holding their attention, something that’s alien to me. My experiences are with secondary school-aged children and certainly not with six-year-olds.

I spent a chunk of Saturday practising with dry ice, a leaf blower and an airzooka (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airzooka). The problem was every time I tried to present an experiment, I froze at some point.

Sometimes you just have to have faith in your abilities. It’s a bit like playing a guitar solo for a particular song. You can learn it note for note but when you’re in front of an audience, chances are you’ll miss a note or your timing will be out and you’ll fluff the notes when trying to get back in sync. The alternative is to know your first note and to then let the solo flow. That’s what I prefer and I decided to adopt that approach with the party.

I did everything I could to reduce the error level: wrote lists of what to take with and what to set up when I got there and allowed plenty of time (especially as the Olympic torch was going through the area that day). As soon as I walked through the church hall door, the smile and professional attitude kicked in. Took me about 30 minutes to unload and set up and then I helped the organisers hang up the balloons and chatted with the early arrivals.

 

 

It’s important for kids to understand the difference between magic and science so we always start with a magic trick. Mine is a card trick that has a flavour of Tommy Cooper – it appears to go wrong. I told them that I’d met Albus Dumbledore at the petrol station on the way there and that he’d guaranteed the trick would work. A girl in the front row shouted out: “No you didn’t! You’re telling lies!” How do you handle that?? I looked at her and said: “How can you say such a thing to a maaaad scientist?” I could see the parents at the back of the room laughing. From then on, everything just flowed.

I told the kids the story of William Tell and how he’d shot an apple from his son’s head with a crossbow. “We’re going to repeat that experiment here!” I said. The room went deathly quiet and then some of the kids started saying: “no, don’t!”

“I have two problems. First, I have no apples. Second, I don’t think your mums and dads would be very happy with the idea!” The two birthday boys then took turns blasting plastic cups with pictures of apples stuck to them from each other’s heads with the airzooka.

 

 

What followed was half an hour of scientific experiments that engaged the parents as well as the kids. Picture a circle of 40 kids with enough dry ice in a bucket to result in them looking like they were floating on a cloud, and flying two rolls of toilet paper at high speed courtesy of the leaf blower.

The show concluded outside with two bottles of diet coke, two packets of menthos and two huge fountains.

Not quite finished though! One of the two birthday boys had been unwell and the parents didn’t want him to blow out the candles. No problem – we used the airzooka! From about 12 feet the two boys and I blew out the candles first time.

What was really nice was one mum’s comment to me at the end. “Really good – definitely exceeded our expectations!” I wonder if she would have believed me had I told her it was my first solo party…

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If there’s one thing that annoys the hell out of me it’s the price of food and drink at petrol stations. Yesterday I found something even worse.

bp connect has a deal going at the moment. Buy two 500ml bottles of Coca Cola and you get 5p a litre off the price of the fuel you’ve just bought. The half-litre bottles cost £1.49 each but you can buy a two-litre bottle at Tesco for £1.98 so it’s a pretty crappy deal. But at a certain point the offer will save you money.

I filled up with 55.27 litres at 138.9p. That’s £76.77. At the pay desk, with two bottles of Coca Cola next to him, the assistant asked me:
Would you like two free bottles of coke?
No thanks,” I replied.

At that, he took the two bottles, put them in a plastic bag and placed them down by his side. I paid by credit card and he gave me the credit card receipt but not the till receipt.

When I got back to my car, I checked the receipt. £76.99. I double-checked the pump. £76.77. I’d been overcharged by 22p.

Now 22p isn’t going to make any difference as to whether I need to go to work next week but the whole episode riled me. I went back inside, told the assistant I’d been overcharged and he gave me 22p. No apology, no explanation.

When I got home, I phoned the bp connect and spoke with the manager. He said:
Do you have your receipt?
No, I was only given the credit card receipt,” I answered.
Well it sounds like the assistant didn’t explain the offer to you properly,” he explained. “If you take over 60 litres of diesel, it’s cheaper this way.
Yes it is,” I replied. “But it’s up to me whether I take the offer or not. I filled up with less than 60 litres and refused the offer which was then forced on me. I was overcharged, the assistant kept the bottles of coke and didn’t hand me the till receipt. Isn’t this illegal?

At this point, the manager started talking about checking the cctv for evidence and passing the information on to his district manager who called me 10 minutes later. Again, he spoke about not having the offer explained to me clearly.

They just don’t seem to get it. If a customer buys sufficient fuel for this offer to save him money and then refuses the two bottles of coke, what happens to them? As there’s nowhere on the receipt to show whether a customer has taken the two bottles, the stock count will show two less. And what happens to those two bottles? How many filled plastic bags are there behind bp connect counters?

While I’d like to give the assistant the benefit of the doubt, the fact that he didn’t give me the till receipt, which would have shown that I’d been charged 5p a litre less and £2.98 for the two bottles of coke, is pretty damning. And this may well be a widespread practice because the way it’s set up lends itself to abuse.

This ‘offer’ is on until 10 September. If you use bp connect, check your receipt and watch the assistant carefully…

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From some of your comments, it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one whose confidence has taken a serious knock through being made redundant.

In February, I interviewed for a temporary six-month production manager’s job at a London-based charity. Having been shortlisted via a very good application form and personal statement, I thought I could breeze through the interview which included a 40-minute test. After 20 years of day-to-day experience, what could I possibly be asked that I didn’t know about print production? This job was mine if I wanted it.

The test wasn’t the problem; handling my nerves was. I sat down at a PC (which is alien to me, being a Mac person) and my first instruction was to turn on track changes in Word. On a PC. With Windows. Clueless. I started to panic. I had 20 minutes to sub a piece of copy and three minutes had already passed with me just sitting there, frozen to the spot.

I managed to find track changes but couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. My brain had gone to mush and I was sweating profusely. As I was given a print-out of the subbing at the end, I know I did a decent job on it and missed very few mistakes.

Next up was preparing a brief for a print job, something I had also done almost every day for the past 10 years. Again, the panic set in. Shaking, sweating, lack of focus, all the usual signs. But again, I did a decent enough job.

I was a little more comfortable at the actual interview stage until I was asked about Jewish Care. My mind drifted. For a few moments I became a little incoherent. I managed to explain what had happened and to show some of my portfolio but from that point on I was pretty well lost. And when the interviewers explained to me that the job may become full-time, my body language ruled me out completely. I didn’t get offered the job and my confidence took yet another knock.

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. If you take the wrong path in life, there’s always another chance to find the right one. I suppose that makes me a believer in fate. The decisions I made after that interview regarding Mad Science and maths tutoring are starting to pay dividends and improving the quality of my life immensely. Yet my reaction to pressure remains an unhealthy one. Last night I saw three students for the first time. I lost a lot of sleep (not that I get much) in the few nights before but I needn’t have worried. The lessons went well.

Next up is my first solo party for Mad Science (for which I’m working at summer camp this week). Forty six-year-old kids, one hour, lots of scientific goodies including dry ice. What can possibly go wrong?!

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It’s almost nine months since my last day at Jewish Care.

That last day is a bit of a blur. A farewell party had been organised for me and around 80 people attended. My ex-boss gave a speech as did two of my team members. Various people were tearful including my wife. I responded and while I can’t remember exactly what I said, I do recall mentioning that I was being made redundant and seeing the look of astonishment on many people’s faces. Nobody saw it coming, me included.

Ten minutes later and I’d left the building for the last time. I’ve only set foot in there once since and that was for a farewell breakfast for my ex-boss.

I went to another job for a couple of months and when that didn’t work out, I took stock of what I needed financially and made the decision that I didn’t want to work full-time again. I also made a second decision: not to rely on anyone for anything. If I wanted to work in some capacity, I would have to find that work. It wasn’t going to come looking for me.

First I had to come to terms with being made redundant. And that’s not easy. I had done nothing wrong. I hadn’t been disciplined, guilty of misconduct or sacked. A business decision had been made. I was angry. In fact, it took me until last week and a conversation with someone to appreciate that it was alright for me to feel angry and that I had every reason to feel that way.

After 30 years of getting up every day and going to work I had lost my routine. I now had no reason to get dressed or even get out of bed. I could stay in all day and watch tv, something I have to admit to doing on occasion. My self-esteem and confidence had been hit for six. I felt guilty that I was at home while my wife was out working.

I signed up with a number of online agencies and looked at doing admin work. But when you know that over 100 people are going for such a job and you have no background in doing it, what’s the point of applying? So for almost three months I trod water.

I’m lucky in having a number of strings to my bow. I worked as a youth leader and facilitator for many years and also as a maths teacher and tutor. It seemed sensible to look at using these skills again. So in mid-March I started looking on the gumtree website.

The first job opportunity I saw was for Mad Science, an organisation that provides after-school science clubs for 6-11 year olds. I’d heard about Mad Science because my son had worked for them for a short while before landing a fantastic job in the States. I went to an interview, passed it and have been working for them since April.

The next opportunity via gumtree was to tutor maths via a local agency. I’ve had a few students since April and with a second agency onboard I should have a number of students for the autumn.

Gumtree also gave me a lead for some paid Olympics work, which I should be doing over the next few weeks. And I mustn’t forget the print project management job I did for the Olympics opening ceremony which will be the subject of a blog once the ceremony has gone.

I’m now actively looking for some writing work and design projects but getting such work in either of these areas is difficult even with over 25 years’ of experience.

What is really difficult to adjust to is the losing of my work ‘family’, people who I had worked with, and in some cases managed, for many years. There was the occasional conversation to begin with but now unless I contact any of them, no-one contacts me and that also hurts. This a lesson worth learning – the people you work with and those you socialise with are completely different. And most work relationships die quickly once the work link is severed.

There are days when I am very happy with my situation. I have the time to be involved with a number of music projects and to catch up with some old friends who I haven’t seen for many years. Yet the underlying anger is always there, lying just beneath the surface. On a bad day I find myself just sitting, thinking ‘what if’. Fortunately I have more good days than bad ones and just enough work to keep the bad ones at bay.

What this ongoing process has done is to make me re-evaluate who I am. It is slowly making me understand that the work I do shouldn’t define me and yet has done since the early 1990s. Not only does there have to be life after Jewish Care, there has to be life after work. And that problem will continue until I truly do come to terms with being made redundant.

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Brackleys Bonk

Those of you old enough to remember the Spike Milligan advert will recognise the headline as pertaining to Barclays Bank. It used him to create a funny corporate advert at a time when Barclays was at least helpful if not warm and cuddly. You actually had a chance of going into your local branch (remember them?) and seeing the same teller or manager twice in the same month rather than today’s neverending stream of newbies.

I’m sure we can all come up with banking stories to make each other laugh/cry/scream (strike out as appropriate) but you’ll enjoy this one.

It’s a story in two acts.

Act 1 – Clearing a cheque, mate
Having received a £2000 cheque to clear a court debt (the story of which will be in a future blog), I had five days to get the cheque into my account and inform the court of the payment. As a cheque can be reversed up to nine working days after paying it in, and as this one had the cheque number 100001 which means it’s the first cheque on a brand-new account and so I expected it to bounce, I wondered if banks still did ‘specials’ where they mailed the cheque to the specific branch rather than sending it through the internal clearing system.

At my main branch, I spoke to the young assistant.

Is there any way of clearing a cheque quicker than five working days?” I asked.
No,” was the polite answer.
Don’t you still do specials where I pay a fee?” I enquired.
Not any more,” she replied. “We found we couldn’t rely on the Royal Mail.”
Well you could charge an extra fiver and send it by Special Delivery,” I added, jokingly.
We can’t do that,” she replied, pan-faced.

I then spoke to the counter manager who reiterated her colleague’s reason. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I’ll just double check,” she said.

Ten minutes later she returned with a form. “Yes, we do still offer the service. It’s called Direct Presentation Service and costs £20. We post the cheque directly to the issuing bank using Royal Mail Special Delivery.”

Wasn’t that what I originally suggested?

Sorted! Or not. The problem is that a bank follows up this service by calling the issuing bank three times. If they can’t get an answer, the presentation fails.

As this seemed to be my best option, I went for it. This was on a Monday. Tuesday? Nothing. Wednesday 1pm? Nothing. I called my bank and spoke to the manager again.

I’m sorry but I haven’t heard anything. I’ll look into it this afternoon.”

Wednesday 4.55pm? Nothing. I called back again.

I’ve been trying to get information every 10 minutes this afternoon. I’ll call you in five minutes.” Fifteen minutes later I called the bank again only to get its out-of-hours voicemail.

First thing on Thursday I called Barclays’ call centre in Coventry (the only phone number on the back of the form). The supervisor I spoke to (let’s call her V for Victoria) denied all knowledge of a Direct Presentation Service.

Well you definitely have one,” I argued. “I have the form in front of me.”
It must be a new service,” she said, defensively.
Really? Is that why the form has March 2005 at the bottom? Shouldn’t a supervisor know these things?

She offered to look into it and call me back. By 2.45pm I was pulling my hair out (or would have been if I had any). I phoned the call centre again and spoke to a customer relations manager who gave me the news I really didn’t want to hear: “The relevant department hasn’t received any paperwork for this.”

The red mist started to descend and so I made a bee-line for the main branch. This time I spoke with the branch assistant manager who, apparently, had dealt with the posting of the letter herself and had kept duplicate paperwork. Yes, the letter had been delivered on the Tuesday. She called the issuing bank and managed to confirm that the cheque had cleared. And as the service hadn’t been successful by the Wednesday afternoon, I wasn’t charged the £20 fee.

The moral of Act 1? Don’t deal with juniors, assistants, supervisors or anyone with the title of manager unless they have the word ‘branch’ or similar in front of their title. And never take “no” for an answer. And never presume the person you’re speaking to knows what they’re talking about. Or that they’re right. Chances are they’re not.

I registered a complaint about V at the Coventry call centre. Never heard anything more. Funny that. Perhaps part of the reason why Barclays has recently been found to be among the least transparent UK companies in terms of its corporate reporting?

Now let’s have the intermission. Act 2 to follow shortly…

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