Supermarket Gripes

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I haven’t had a good rant for a while, so best I put that right.

I had cause to go into a large store of a well-known supermarket a while ago.

Make that a very large store.

An extremely large store. Obscenely large.

It was like a medium sized city inside.

Or possibly a large cathedral, which would feel more appropriate, since these things are the glorification of the worship of money. How so? This store, like most others of its hateful ilk, does not simply sell food, any more.

Oh no.

It sells clothes. It sells white goods. DVDs and CDs. Computers and accessories. Mobile phones. Books, stationery, and greetings cards. Items of furniture. Garden items. DIY stuff. It has started its own bank and offers everything from insurance policies to bank accounts. The list seems endless. If I had wanted a lighthouse or a wolf they would probably have got me one from out the back.

There seems to be very little that it does not yet sell, although I have no doubt that it will only be a matter of time before those few gaps are filled.

Its business plan is simple – put every single other type of shop out of business, and corner the market in everything.

I had the strangest feeling – the feeling that I was somehow diminished, just by being in there.

And the food items? The reason I went in there in the first place?

Apparently it is essential that we are able to choose from well over a hundred types of cheese which particular one we need – strong, very strong, beat your brains in, mild, sliced, grated, chopped in cubes, turned into string, low fat, no fat, cows’ milk, sheeps’ milk, antelopes’ milk, crocodiles’ milk, virtual cheese, and all produced by four or five different companies.

And that’s just the cheddar.

Its website tells me that it sells 343 different cheese products. I’m all for choice, but, good grief!

Interestingly, looking at a website for a rival big multinational, I find they sell 344 of these products. Perhaps I should go there, instead? I wouldn’t want to miss out on a shopping opportunity. They might be able to offer me a better ‘shopping experience.’ For my ‘shopping solutions.’

Why do advertising agencies have to come up with that drivel?

And that brings me to another interesting thought.

There is the push to encourage all shoppers to use the ‘self’ check-outs, but at least they seem to have reined back a little on the verbal persuasions. I was standing in line at my ‘local’ small branch last year, when I was approached by a member of staff who suggested I use a ‘self’ check-out.

‘No thanks.’ I said.

‘It’s okay,’ he told me, ‘I’ll show you what to do.’

I can see perfectly well what to do. I don’t intend to use it.’

‘Why not, sir?’

‘Because it’s sole purpose is to take away your jobs.’

‘That’s not so…’

‘I suggest you look at their website, then. Because I have. It clearly states that is one of the advantages of buying one.’

Damn the lot of them.

Measurements

 

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We measure out our time in days,

We measure things so many ways.

We measure distance out in miles,

We measure happiness with smiles.

 

Some think the dollar and the dime

Should be the measure of their time.

The passage of each single hour,

Is marked by exercise of power.

 

I think our time is short enough,

Without recourse to such sad stuff.

I’ll measure my remaining years,

With laughter, books, light rain and beers.

Happy…Birthday?

I know I’ve already checked back in since Christmas, but, well, just to say it was slightly quiet and fairly peaceful. Hope you all had a nice Christmas and New Year. We didn’t do much, but that suited us just fine.

We didn’t do much at all.

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Anyway, back to business. It was my cousin’s birthday, recently. So I sent her a card.

But most shops seem to think you only want Christmas cards, that close to Christmas, and make it really difficult for you find a birthday card.

‘You’ve got thousands of Christmas cards on display, what about birthday cards?’

‘Birthday cards? There’s a couple in the cellar at the back of the shop, I think, on the top shelf in the toilet, underneath the anvils. Old Harry will have the key, but I’ve no idea where Old Harry is. On holiday, probably. Beware the steps are broken, too. And slippery. And there’s no light. And there was an oil-spill there recently. You’d better watch out for the hyenas as well. In fact, why don’t you just go away? Unless you’d like some Christmas tat, that is…’

‘A couple?’

Well, there’s no call for them at this time of year.’

‘No call for them? What about all those people with birthdays in December?’

Birthdays? They shouldn’t be doing that!’

‘Well what about those that do?’

‘That’s their lookout, I’m afraid. Should be ashamed of themselves, coming round here in December and having birthdays. Shouldn’t be allowed. What sort of month is December for birthdays, eh? It’s not right.’

So I sent one of my own greetings cards. I send quite a few, actually. It’s not just to save some money, or to avoid hand to hand combat in shops near Christmas. I’m quite pleased with my hand-made cards, usually with small paintings on them. What? Oh, certainly. Yes, I do. No, not very expensive, thank you for asking. Thank you so much.

But then I had to post it, and the cost of that is ridiculous, now. God knows how we can afford to send the Christmas cards.

Ah…we didn’t. I was forgetting, for a moment.

But, I was talking to my wife about that and said ‘I think if we really want to save some money, it’s not cards I should be turning my artistic endeavours to.’

‘No? What then?’

‘Postage stamps. There, that would save us a few quid.’

‘It’s an idea I suppose. Hmm…or, you could just cut out the middleman altogether.’

‘Ah, twenty pound notes, you mean? That’s an idea.’

‘Yes, we don’t want to be greedy. And everyone forges fifty pound notes, anyway.’

‘No, that’s right. I suppose about ten or twelve a day would do us. That’s not greedy, is it?’

‘It would be a good use of your time, I suppose.’

Anyway, I’ve been busy the last few days. Just don’t ask any awkward questions.

A Christmas Carol – 2

Another attempt at perverting rewriting a Christmas carol for 2017:

(Bob has a lot to answer for!)

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Once in Royal Tunbridge Wells

Stood a lowly shopping mall.

Where a horde of frenzied shoppers

moved like locusts through it all.

Searching for their Christmas loot,

Trampling others underfoot.

 

Finding bargains at the poundshop,

Cheap old tat that falls to bits.

Plastic toys all made of poison,

Tiny parts to choke their kids.

And the Christmas Trip will be,

An ambulance to A & E.

 

Spending fortunes on their own folk,

Presents that could sink a ship.

One month’s food to last just two days

Enough booze to float that ship!

Heed the message of our song,

Selfish greed just can’t be wrong!

 

 

Responsible Travelling – Part 2

Volunteering

Many travellers who are spending some time away from home end up volunteering their services at a project that claims to be a Good Cause, or offering to help to sponsor it. And many are, although a goodly number turn out to be money-making scams, some set up very elaborately indeed.

I have seen many sides of charity work – I have worked as a volunteer in UK and in India, worked as a paid employee of a charity and I have been both a trustee and a committee member of charities. I have also watched one go to bad, with various warning signs unheeded and a number of heads buried in the sand.

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So how do you tell a good project from a bad one? There are no hard and fast rules, mainly because projects differ so much. Some are huge, multi-million dollar constructs involving hundreds of volunteers and paid staff whilst others run on a shoestring with one or two staff. Some are run entirely by local people, others may be foreign led or almost entirely staffed by foreigners. They set up and run schools, leprosy or aids centres, save donkeys, teach alternative ways to cook and heat to reduce deforestation, rescue fallen women and street children, restore old temples, and so on and so on. And it is often very difficult to tell a scam from a genuine project.

Firstly, please do not just leap in and offer money. There are several good ways to get a feel for the project. Local knowledge is often a good start – talk to people. If you are spending a while in a place, you will get to know people and you can chat about your chosen project to them. If it is dodgy, someone is very likely to warn you. Or spend a while there as a volunteer before offering any money. Watching how it is run at first hand should give you a feel for it. Other than that, look at its website, if it has one. The project should have a board of trustees, or a committee, to oversee it. Contact them. Ask to see how the money is used and accounted for. This should all be open and in the public domain. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the people concerned are reluctant to give answers, or resent your asking, be suspicious. Look for obvious signs and use common sense. A large, flashy building with a few children inside and a big new landcruiser parked out in front, in the midst of a squalid village is going to be locally devisive and should also set your alarm bells ringing. If the trustees and committee all live in Europe or US, then it may be very difficult for them to carry out their duties effectively and again you should be wary.

Naturally, all this is unnecessary if you volunteer through a well-known and reputable agency such as Oxfam or VSO – you can be sure that all has been checked out thoroughly. If you can arrange a placement before you travel, using a reputable charity, you are unlikely to encounter problems. Do a little research.

Photography

Just a bit of common sense here, really. Be aware that in some societies taking photos, especially of people or religious objects and buildings, may not be accepted as easily as it is in the west. Often it is best to ask first. Be aware of people’s sensitivities. Years ago as I waited at Dubai airport, an elderly local gentleman in local costume sat drinking coffee in a cafe. He was approached by a western couple; he taking a number of photos of said local gentleman from intrusively close range, whilst she posed beside him. After a while she virtually sat on his knee as her partner continued to snap. The local gentleman sat impassive and stony faced through this whilst I (and I am sure almost everyone else in the room) cringed and wanted to creep away (or hit them!). I hope that just the thought of it makes you cringe, too! I have virtually stopped taking candid shots in places like markets, largely because I feel quite uncomfortable doing so. I feel as though I am both being intrusive, and treating people insensitively. I have found, though, that I have been rewarded with a lot of great photographs by simply asking people if they minded me photographing them. Very few refuse, and quite a few will pose proudly.

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Should you take photos of people and offer to send them copies, please make sure that you honour this. Many people that you meet will want their photo taken – in India I have been frequently approached when taking photos by people who wanted me to photograph them. In more remote areas, you may come across people who have never seen their photograph before.

You should also be aware that in many countries airports, bridges, hydro-electric power stations and many other buildings are regarded as military installations and the authorities take a dim view of attempts to photograph them. It is possible to end up facing years in prison for taking that innocent photograph of a nice-looking bridge! Find out before you travel whether this applies to the country you are visiting.

To go or not to go –

The ethics of visiting an oppressed country.

For visiting – to see it as it really is (you probably won’t. The Army/State/Police will ensure that you don’t get to particularly sensitive areas.), to support the local people (you may or may not be. You can choose to spend your money in little stalls or shops but you may have little choice when it comes to hotels. You may be forced to stay in State-run set-ups. You certainly won’t be allowed to show any political support.).

Against visiting – You would be tacitly supporting the State. You would invariably be financially supporting the state. If the State encourages foreign tourism, it is because it wants the tourists’ dollars. Again, this is another dilemma that you will have to solve for yourself. There are several things that you can do, however, if you want to support the people of an oppressed country.

Campaigning – groups such as Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org.uk) or Avaaz (www.avaaz.org) campaign actively in support of prisoners of conscience or oppressed groups or minorities. Join them, sign their petitions, give money, write letters to governments. Add your voice to those demanding change.

Boycotts – Boycotting the goods of an oppressive regime denies them foreign cash.

There and back again

You might want to think about offsetting your carbon emissions when you travel to and from your holiday (and do not forget about any internal flights that you might take). There are a few companies that use carbon offset payments to either plant trees, or work in the area of low carbon technology with the aim of reducing the effects of global warming – for example developing cheap and easy to produce but highly efficient cooking stoves for use in areas such as Nepal where erosion has become a huge problem due to deforestation for cooking fires.

Climate Care are the company I have contributed to, who do a lot of work in this field. Obviously it is better if you take alternative public transport, but not always possible or convenient. There is a limit to how many 30 hour bus rides in ramshackle vehicles it is possible to put up with! It is not possible to be precise, but usually trains are the least polluting option. When island hopping, ferries rather than planes.

It is far more interesting to travel slowly and be part of the environment than to get into a hermetically sealed container and just emerge at the other end. Surely, that is what travel is all about.

 

Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

In countries such as India, there is frequently an impression that Western visitors and therefore, by extension, all Westerners, own vast wealth and have massive amounts of leisure time at their disposal.

After all, they arrive on holiday, perhaps for a month or more, and they go around staying in places that are far beyond the means of the average Indian, spend the equivalent of several month’s wages on souvenirs, often hop on an aircraft to take a journey that would be one hundredth of the price by rail, flaunting expensive cameras and watches and phones and designer clothes. So who wouldn’t think that?

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This is not helped by the impressions given by many Western films and programs, where work seldom seems to get in the way of whatever action the film is depicting.

This often affects how local people interact with visitors, and their feelings about them.

I suspect it even drives a certain amount of international migration, too.

And so I think it very important to highlight a few facts;

Basically, the differences in exchange rates of different currencies give the impression of great wealth which is not, in fact, true.

A few numbers:

The average annual wage in the UK is currently £28,000, or $34,400. This sounds a lot (even to me!) but that hides a huge variation, of course.

It is quite hard to find figures that agree about the average annual Indian wage, with estimates varying from around $600, up to around $3500, although this may well reflect the massive difference between the rural worker and a worker in, for example, the IT industry. For sake of argument, I’m going to use the figure of $2000, which could still be slightly on the high side, looking at some of the sites I’ve gone to.

This would give the average UK worker a wage 17 times higher than the Indian. Sounds good for us, but the average cost of a house in the UK is now some £300,000 – that’s $369,000, and it is now almost impossible for young people to buy their own house unless they are helped by well-off parents, and they have very well-paid jobs. The average rent, otherwise, is around $12,300 per year. About a third of the average wage.

To find an average cost to rent in India is also difficult (for me!). I scoured a lot of sites, and seemed to come up with a figure of somewhere around $1,200 a year, although there were massive variations, both between cities and within them. If I have got these figures correct, that is around a half of the average wage.

The prices of basic commodities such as foodstuffs or power vary a lot between India and UK, too. Whereas I have bought street food in India for a rupee or two, making a lunch for perhaps 15 or 20 cents, it would cost me at least $2.50 to $3 in UK for the equivalent.

This isn’t to draw up an accurate comparison between the two – it would be quite a study to do that – but to try to make the point that the average person in the UK is better off (materially) than the average person in India, but not by nearly as much as many might think.

India has more of a problem with poverty, but the West has quite a bit, too. And whilst the poor in the West are emphatically not as badly off as their cousins in India, they still endure considerable hardship. Even with the existence of the supposed safety net of Social Security. There is homelessness. There is malnourishment.

Incidentally, and I pose this as a question to my Indian friends, I frequently read articles that focus on aid and development in poor (especially rural) areas of India, highlighting the fact that a large percentage of the population have to survive on around two dollars a day.

In the light of the above, I wonder whether this isn’t a little disingenuous, since that figure may not be as far below the average wage as many in the West believe, and wonder what you think?

I think it matters, because I believe this might distract attention from where work is needed more, such as improving sanitation, work conditions and medical care.

Wow, What a Book #3, #4, #whatever

Well, Saturday already. Seems only yesterday it was Friday *sigh* I suppose I’d better get on with it.

I don’t think I’ll do ten of these after all, because I rather run the risk of listing books just because I like them, rather than because they have had a real and measurable influence on me. So today I present the final three.

1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

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I read this book when I was in my mid twenties, and it really did open my eyes to what we as a species were doing to the planet. Up until that point, I had not really understood the impact that we were having on the environment. Shocked, I became interested in learning more, and then even more shocked as I learned what food and drink manufacturers put in their products for us to consume. At that time, one of them was the nasty compound dropped by the Americans on Vietnam during the Vietnamese War; a defoliant that was known to be carcinogenic.

It was used as orange food colouring.

I got hold of a list of all the ‘E’ numbers that were permitted additives, and which the industry certainly didn’t want us to know about. Certain ones were very nasty indeed. It was at this point that I became very keen on reading the labels on food and drink packaging.

I became involved with various pressure groups, such as Greenpeace.

That book changed my life.

2. The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham.

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In some ways, this could lay claim to be the book that has had the greatest influence on my adult life, but in a different way to Silent Spring.

I’d always tried to be a reasonably decent human being, but reading this made me rethink the way that I wanted my life to be. It is the story of a man who returns from the first world war and begins to question his place in society. He finds the trappings of modern western life, and its values, empty and meaningless – its focus on making money, selfishness and greed. He then searches for something meaningful in his own life, through education, religion and travel, and explores his relationships to others.

The message in this book immediately resonated with me; that there is much more to life than the pursuit of money, essential though some of it it might be to my survival. Other people mattered. Helping others was important. What is called the spiritual life, whether or not you believe in a god or not, was an important part of us all.

5. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.

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Are you serious? you ask. How could this book be an influence on your life? One of the first science fiction books, and admirable for that, but an influence?

Well, it is easily told, and the answer will probably surprise you. This book provided the initial impetus for me to become a vegetarian.

Yes, a vegetarian. There is a passage in the book where the narrator recoils with disgust as the Martians take the blood from still-living humans for their nutrition, but then comments that it was probably the same reaction as an intelligent rabbit would feel observing our own eating habits. That made me consider whether it was necessary for me to eat meat, and I came to the conclusion that no, it was not.

Plastic Bottles of Water

Plastic bottles of water.

We buy plastic bottles of water.

Why the bloody hell, at least in the west, do we buy plastic bottles of water?

And, hang on a minute, before we even start wondering why we pay stupid amounts of money for a commodity that is virtually free, we even pay for those silly little contraptions on the tops of the bottles that you grip with your teeth, pull, and then, if it works, and doesn’t just break off, enables you to squirt the water through this nozzle into your mouth.

All of this just to save you unscrewing the cap and taking it off.

The dreadful labour of having to unscrew the cap.

And taking it off.

Perhaps that is why we buy the bottled water – to save us the bother of turning a tap and holding a glass beneath it to catch the water.

Really?

So why do we do it?

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It costs…well, tap water is all but free. For example, in California tap water costs one tenth of a cent per gallon.

In the UK my local water company charges £1.248 per cubic meter, which is 220 gallons, for water. This makes it just over half a penny a gallon.

Bottled water? On sale in my local supermarket for £1.50 for 3 litres. On special offer. There are approximately 4.5 litres in a gallon, so this costs out at £2.75 per gallon, which is approximately 550 times more expensive than tap water. Or, if you like, you are paying under half a penny for the water, and almost the entire £2.75 for the plastic bottles.

Feel good about that?

Me neither.

Perhaps the bottled water is far superior to the tap water?

Nope. Sorry about that, it’s not.

First of all, approximately half of it comes from the tap in any case. Yup, that’s right. The company that flogs it to you gets it from out of the tap.

And as for the rest, tap water is subject to more stringent quality and health standards than bottled water is, in any case. In tests on water in the USA last year, tap water came out better.

So are the huge, multinational soft drinks companies who manufacture these things doing it for our benefit?

You bet they’re not. They’re doing it because they can see an easy and gigantic profit.

We could do worse than talk to our old friend, Mr Satan Moneyglutton, the anonymous CEO of a major soft drinks company, at this point.

‘I honestly don’t know what you’re whingeing about. You want convenience, don’t you? What could be more convenient than pouring all of your money into our coffers?

‘Tap water is so yesterday. It’s inconvenient. We have declared war on tap water. When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to irrigation and washing dishes.

‘And we are working hard to persuade restaurants not to give tap water to diners, but force them instead to purchase our bottled drinks.

‘It is helpful, of course, that most towns and cities seem to have stopped building and maintaining public water fountains, thereby forcing the thirsty citizen to purchase a canned or bottled drink.

‘Furthermore, with the spread of those nasty windfarms and tidal power generators, the future for oil as a source of power is, sadly, looking a wee bit unhealthy.

‘Clearly, there’s no point in leaving the oil in the ground where it’s of no use to anyone, so it makes sense to step up the manufacture of plastics which, incidentally, will make me even richer.’

So, there you go.

‘Nice bottle of water, sir? Only £1. And would you like a plastic bag full of air with that? Only £1.50.’

Don’t laugh – it’ll happen soon, I’m certain.

Rich Beyond my Wildest Dreams

The other day, a friend of mine jokingly asked me whether I would be moving into a big mansion and getting a chauffeur driven car, once my novel is published and I have made a fortune.

For a few minutes we invented a whole new life for me; where my riches enabled me to buy whatever I desired and to do whatever I wished. Then we got tired of that, and the conversation moved on to more mundane things.

But let us say this came to pass, because, you know, things happen. Unexpectedly. What would I want?

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I can only listen to one piece of music at a time, no matter how much I may love music.

I can only read one book at a time and, God knows, I have a pile as high as, ooh, this to get through already. I continually try not to buy any more books when I go out. And I continually fail.

I don’t want a flash car. I don’t actually want a car at all, as it happens. I’m stuck with one at the moment, because the work that actually provides me with a tenuous living requires it. If I no longer did that work, I would probably get rid of the car.

A bigger house? No, not really. Perhaps one further out of town, though.

There is travel, of course. More trips to India and Nepal, for a start. But again, time is not infinite, and there would be a limit to how many different places I could go. Would I stay in luxury hotels, then? No. I have no desire to do that. Fly first class? That is probably the one thing I would do. I am tall, and the leg-room on most flights is a little mean even for children. And then my back causes me so much pain at the best of times that any long-haul flight is extremely uncomfortable.

We all use language carelessly at times. What do I mean by rich? Well, possibly something different to what you would mean, then again, possibly not. For some people, the idea of being rich means having virtually unlimited money so that they can buy every conceivable luxury. For others, it simply means not having to worry about whether they can make ends meet in day to day life, and that is the category that I fall into.

I have known people who earn heady amounts of money yet do not consider themselves rich, because they find it too easy to spend it almost as fast as they earn it. I have known others who would consider themselves rich if they came into a very modest windfall.

Today, in the affluent western world at least, the vast majority of us are rich, although we don’t recognise it. Why? Modern advertising is insidious and relentless and companies spend billions of pounds each year persuading us all that we cannot live without their products, that we all have a right to them and that we want (and deserve) them.

And that we want them now.

This has meant that luxury fripperies have come to be seen as necessities.

Audiences watching TV programs, or walking down their high streets, or opening magazines, are constantly bombarded with an unending stream of images of luxury goods that they are told are rightfully theirs, and which are paraded by their football or ‘reality’ TV heroes.

What these advertisers don’t want us to see is that the trash they are pushing is unnecessary and does nothing to enrich our lives.

Now, where was I?

Oh yes, I just have to nip out for a loaf of bread.

Of course, it has to be an artisan-crafted Estonian cob loaf made with organic Bulgar wheat flour milled under a full moon and leavened with yeasts descended from the very yeasts used by the court baker of Peter the Great of Russia and baked for thirty seven and a quarter minutes in a bread oven fired with birch logs and scented with juniper and a teaspoonful of fuller’s earth.

It will be damned expensive, but I DESERVE IT AND I WANT IT NOW.