Monthly Archives: January 2013

International Women’s Day


I live at Newington Green, which became the home of English Dissenters during the 17th Century and beyond. These were free-thinking people who challenged conventional ideas.  So I seem to have ended up in the right place.

The famous Unitarian Church still stands on the little Green, one of our local pubs is called The Dissenting Academy and the area has associations with too many famous and unconventional people to mention here. Among them John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodists and Thomas Cooper, the Leicester Chartist. He actually lived in my house, though of course it was his house then.

Among the important and influential residents of the Green was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’. When I was researching Mary’s life I was rather pleased to see that before she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ she had actually written ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’ as well. Now this was a pamphlet in support of republicanism, agrarian socialism and religious tolerance, among other things. She wasn’t arguing the case for men, as such. In contrast to ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women which, in very broad terms, argues for women’s education and maintains that they deserve the same fundamental rights as men.

However, it makes a nice link (albeit a little contrived). Because, while I am a great believer in supporting and advocating the cause of women, I also believe that in doing this we should welcome and encourage those men who are on our side. I don’t believe in man-bashing. I doubt that Mary W was anti man either. Nevertheless, without in any way diminishing the suffering of individual men, in general women still get a really raw deal. They still come off worse overall. Much worse.

Among women aged between 15 and 44, acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. Currently India is in the news and many Arab States too have an abusive culture. But it’s not really fair to pick out just two cultures, as the problem is endemic. Indeed we’ve still a long way to go here in the UK – we’ve plenty to improve on. Did you know that more than two women are killed by current or ex-partners every week? And that one in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime?

This year, International Women’s Day is on Friday 8th March. It will be celebrated throughout the world. Because it is a celebration – a celebration of all that has been achieved so far. It’s also a fundraiser with the aim of helping women throughout the world gain their independence and live in safety. And it’s an awareness raising exercise, to remind those of us who already know and to educate those who are still ignorant of some of the appalling things that are going on. And that continue to go on away from the spotlight of the media, that continue when the journalists and the media have packed their bags and left.

From Afghanistan to Australia. Darlington to Delhi. The world will be celebrating on 8th March.  Go onto the Facebook Page to see what’s happening and how you can join in. Take part in Oxfam’s ‘Get Together’ campaign (I’ll be writing more about that in a week or so). If we all do just a little bit, we can all make the violence stop.

Posted in Blog, Dissenters, History, International Women's Day, Mary Wollstonecraft, Newington Green, Oxfam | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…”



If you’re of a nervous disposition, step away from the screen.  I mean it. Shut down your computer now and step away. However if, like me, you are attracted by all things weird, including strange and unusual deaths, read on. It’s not the death part of it that attracts me; it’s the quirky and strange circumstances. Plus the fact that it raises an illicit giggle where giggles have no place. Like having an urge to laugh at a funeral. You know you shouldn’t. Indeed you don’t want to but somehow you can’t help it.

One of my favourite weird deaths is death by carrot. There’s one real one and one fictional one. You’ll find them in an article I wrote a while ago. The craziest carrot death is in the opening scene of the film ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ where Clive Owen dispatches the baddie with a carrot stick. Sounds unlikely? Well it is a film. In real life the unassuming carrot was also responsible for the death of a man called Basil Brown. A health fanatic, the poor man took it too far with the carrot juice. Having downed gallons of the stuff in a short space of time he ended up bright orange. And dead.

So far, so weird. But there’s more. Before I carry on, for the pedants among us, of which I am definitely one, I hasten to explain that in many of these sad cases death was actually the result of a heart attack, or strangulation or drowning or by breaking your neck by inadvisably jumping off a tall building wearing a Heath Robinson style overcoat-parachute. It was the things that led up to them that were strange. There are so many of them, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Death by cactus, by bottle cap, by sheep and by beard. And more, far too many to mention.

In 1982 David Grundman and his mate decided to do a little shooting, with a cactus as the target. The cactus got its revenge; a chunk of it sheared off and crushed him to death. Tennessee Williams, the famous playwright, choked on a bottle top. Poor Betty Stobbs was knocked off her feet by her herd of sheep and pushed over a cliff. Ungrateful creatures – she’d only come to feed them. Hans Steinen grew the longest beard in the world, tripped on it and broke his neck escaping from a fire.

There are enough weird deaths to fill months of blog posts. They come in all guises – romantic, incredible, spooky, and, yes, funny. One of the most romantic sounding deaths is that of Chinese poet Li Po. Apart from being one of the greatest poets in Chinese literature, he also loved a drink. Poor man fell from his boat on the Yangtze River and drowned while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. That’s one version. Grigori Rasputin’s death is downright weird. The Russian mystic, was reportedly poisoned, shot in the head four times, clubbed, and finally when these failed he was chased into a frozen river.

In 1991, Yooket Paen was walking in her farmyard. She slipped, grabbed a wire. It was live. She was electrocuted and died on the spot. Shortly after her funeral Her sister was out in the farmyard with neighbours, demonstrating how the accident had happened. She too slipped. Grabbed the same wire and she too died. You’d think they would have taped it up or something. That wasn’t just an accident waiting to happen. It had already happened.

General Sedgwick fell in battle during the American Civil War. Shots fired by Confederate sharpshooters caused his men to duck for cover. The Confederates were roughly 1,000 yards away. Sedgwick was disgusted and walked into the open, striding around saying “I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Despite this his men continued to cower. So he repeated “I’m ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist …” and fell forward with a bullet hole in his eye. I know it isn’t funny, but … well it is.

Posted in Blog, History, People, Weird Food | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A ray of sunshine in the economic gloom …

… a flashmob visits a Spanish unemployment office.

Posted in Blog, Europe, Flash mobs, Spain, Unemployment | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Nose in Admiralty Arch and the Sad Story of the Traffic Light Tree

Image: Squirmelia

When travelling round London on the bus, I prefer to sit on the top deck but only if I can sit at the front. Not only do you get a great view of rooftops, but also, if you look carefully, the sight of hidden treasures – sculptures perched on the top of buildings, roof terraces and oddities like the lighthouse at Kings Cross.  Of course you don’t have to be on the top deck of a bus to see all these glories. Many are down in the streets – if you know where to look. There are so many odd, weird, fascinating and beautiful things to see in London it’s impossible to fit them into one blog post. Today I’m going to concentrate on statues and sculptures and for these and for future posts on this topic I am indebted principally to the Shady Old Lady website.

So rich is London in these delights it’s hard to know where to start. Should it be the New-born Baby sculpture in the porch at St Martin in the Fields, the Giant Plug and Socket on the side of an electricity sub-station in Ganton Street, Soho or the Neil’s Yard Water Clock in Covent Garden where water rises, bells sound the hour and flowers appear to grow. You also need to avoid a drenching by the figure of a child who tips her water onto the unwary below.

None of these sculptures are difficult to find. Others require a little work. Not that they are exactly hidden but some are not obvious and for others you will have to travel away from the centre. In the first category, there’s the nose inside Admiralty Arch at the top of the Mall. Did you know it was there? I didn’t.  Walk into the right hand arch, look up at the left side and you’ll see it. Apparently the horse guards touch it for luck as they ride through – being on horseback they can actually reach it. While in the locality, take a stroll to The Westminster City School in Palace Street and look up at the roof of the new building. There’s you’ll find the Dandelion Sculpture created by the pupils in 2010 out of re-used plastic fizzy drinks bottles. As it catches the wind it throws colour in every direction – beautiful and ethical!

Leaving the centre of London we’re going first to Wanstead, then on the Docklands Light Railway to Silvertown and finally to the Greenwich Peninsula. This may be the wrong way round but I haven’t looked it up on Journey Planner (though they do often give you some extremely weird and illogical routes.) In Wanstead you’ll find a plaque commemorating a stolen cherry pie, in Silvertown, on the wall of the Tate and Lyle factory a giant tin of Golden Syrup and on the Greenwich Peninsula Antony Gormley’s Cloud sculpture. Even taller than the Angel of the North it was commissioned for the opening of the Millennium Dome, now the O2.

On the way back from Greenwich visit the Traffic Light Tree at Canary Wharf.  Impossible to have a favourite among so many wonderful oddities but I must confess that I find this installation really endearing. A weird term to apply to such an object perhaps, but that’s how I feel about it. Designed by Pierre Vivant it has 75 sets of traffic lights and is supposed to reflect the energy of the area. Energy is not the word I’d apply to Canary Wharf but I do love this statue – it’s quirky, mad and fun and as such it’s as far removed from the atmosphere of Canary Wharf as it’s possible to get.

And having written that last sentence I went to take another look at the web pages to select the best image. And what do I find. The Traffic Light Sculpture has been removed – to make way for road improvements. How sad, how typical. Canary Wharf is the poorer for it (there’s more than one way of being poor just as there are different ways of being rich.) If anyone knows what happened to the statue, please let me know.

Posted in Art, Blog, London, Sculpture, Strange and Unusual Sculpture, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Random acts of kindness

Most Thursdays I am in Covent Garden for a Toastmasters meeting. Usually for 7am, but on occasion I need to be there soon after 6.30.  There’s no time for breakfast – a lightning shower and minimal make-up is all I can manage at that hour. So obviously when I get off the Tube I am badly in need of a coffee. And thank the Good Lord there’s a Pret-A-Manger in Long Acre. And it opens early. When the charming manageress told me my coffee was on the house I had no idea this was part of the Pret version of a ‘Random Act of Kindness’. Not that I’m knocking it. Not if it’s genuine.

Random Acts of Kindness have probably been around long before St Martin gave half of his cloak to a beggar. Wikipedia defines them as selfless acts “performed by a person or people wishing to either assist or cheer up an individual person or people.” And goes on to say that the phrase may possibly be attributed to the writer, Anne Herbert, who says that she wrote “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on a place mat at a Sausalito restaurant in 1982 or 1983.

I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this concept. I absolutely love the idea of truly random and genuine acts of kindness. I hate the idea of business, particularly big business muscling in on the act. Not that I am against kindness – particularly in commerce. It’s heartening to see a gentler, less aggressive attitude gaining ground. There are some brilliant examples in companies large and small – Henrietta Lovell at The Rare Tea Company and Paul Warner at When I was a Kid to name just two.

These and other companies put kindness and empathy at the forefront of their businesses. This includes doing random acts of kindness. However, it’s the people who generate the attitude, the ethos, of these enterprises. And it’s this that customers and suppliers alike recognise and respond to. Of course such an approach is good for business; I believe the majority of people will respond more readily to kindness and understanding than to cutthroat methods.

However, there’s a caveat. It’s this. The kindness must arise naturally from the beliefs and values of the owners or managers. In this context companies who allow their employees to use their intuition and discretion seem to do better than those who lay it on them as a ‘strategy’ as that somehow defeats the whole object. Provided the core motivation is to help, understand and offer kindness the concept works, no matter the size of the company.

Social media offers a great opportunity to get to know customers and to identify occasions for random acts of kindness. As a result of the disruption caused by the Iceland volcano a few years ago, KLM for instance began to see the opportunity provided by social media and read their customers Tweets and Facebook comments. They used the information they gleaned to surprise selected customers with small personal gifts or with invitations to events. Similarly such companies as Guernsey-based telecoms company Sure and Scottish brewery BrewDog have a policy of kindness, whether just being nice to someone or offering free beer.

The more worrying side of all this is the move to formalize the trend, to make it part of a marketing mix, just another marketing tool. This quote from Jo Causton, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, is not reassuring. ‘”We need to give our people the skills and confidence to make the right judgment as to when an act of kindness … is appropriate. When organisations do that it really needs to feel authentic and genuine.”

The italics are mine. If something ‘needs to feel’ authentic, it’s pretty clear that that’s the last thing it is. Any company thinking to follow this advice would be much better off improving their customer service first. They’d do well to copy the likes of Boots who coughed up a 25% discount without even being asked ‘because we screwed up.’ Or my boiler insurance people who offered a cheque for £100 because they let me down. Or O2 who bent over backwards to sort out my phone.

Customers aren’t stupid. They’ll spot insincerity and gimmicks quicker than you can say ‘freebie’. The only way that random acts of kindness can work in a commercial setting is if they come from the heart, the values and the ethos. Of course they will create goodwill and thus increase profit – but this won’t last long if the motive is merely profit.

I was delighted with my free coffee at Pret. It didn’t feel contrived or as if I was being manipulated. It wouldn’t have worked if it had.  I go to Pret because I like their coffee, I like their values, I like the genuine warmth of their staff. (They don’t train their employees in customer relations by the way. Their policy is to recruit people who are naturally friendly, who don’t need to be taught to smile). There’s another coffee shop nearby. The one that doesn’t pay its taxes. However, it’s not that that prevents me crossing their thresholds. Or not only that. It’s because their coffee is lousy. And writing people’s names on the cups doesn’t fool anyone.

Googling ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ will bring up a lot more information.

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