Wednesday, 30 April 2008


The rail companies love to bend commuters over a table and lube up for rear entry into their wallets. I caught the 6:39 from Exeter St Davids to London Paddington which got me there just after 9:20 with no hitches whatsoever. Had I wanted to take the 6:55, which gets in at 9:05, the ticket would have cost an extra £50. Lucky for me this was a trip to France to visit my Mum and therefore not a daily occurrence or my wallet would be bereft of banknotes, if slightly greasy to the touch.

At the point of booking the flight and discovering that Ryanair's impressive list of destinations is matched only by the ways in which they can charge you cash (£6 per item of luggage? £3 to check in at the airport? £6 to book using a credit card EVEN THOUGH THERE'S NO OTHER OPTION?) I had decided this was to be my last Stansted to Carcassonne flight. After this it'll be Exeter to Avignon and I'll learn enough French to use their trains to get me from Avignon to Carcassonne.

Anyway, this journey was train, tube, train, plane and then Mum would collect me from the airport. Not wanting to be panicked and having suffered the turgid display of ineptitude that is 'security' at Stansted airport I gave myself plenty of time. As it turned out, the whole journey was so good it was almost suspiciously enjoyable. The trip up to Paddington was smooth and quiet and the only time anyone disturbed me was when someone asked which way the buffet car was. The tube arrived at Paddington less than a minute after I got to the platform and I was at Liverpool Street in plenty of time for the Stansted Express. Whilst on that they kindly announced over the PA that there's engineering work planned over the bank holiday so Liverpool Street is shut and everyone has to get the tube from Tottenham Hale instead. That explains why the electronic timetable told me it'd take an hour longer than usual on the return leg of the trip. Apart from that and a non-English speaking tourist asking me by waving their ticket at me if they were on the right train (they were) there was nothing unusual about that part of the journey. At the airport the check-in queue was just long enough for it to take 15 minutes to clear and the notoriously huge security queue was the shortest I'd ever seen it: less than 10 minutes to get through and the bloke who frisked me (metal eyelets in my trainers, wait for the beep) liked my Disney t-shirt showing the seagulls from Finding Nemo.

Before I harp on about sitting in the Wetherspoons, drinking a beer and enjoying the groups of fellow holidaymakers around me creating that classic 'airport as a microcosm of life' environment, there was a minor incident which had me beaming with joy at the good nature of my fellow man. I popped into Boots to get some bits & bobs for Mum and completely failed to notice that when I fished my wallet out of my bag I inadvertently dropped the plastic bag containing my Euros. A bloke spotted it, tapped me on the shoulder and returned my £100 worth of sponds with a smile. I was that pleased I could have kissed him but he didn't look like he'd appreciate that so I just said thanks instead. While enjoying my pre-takeoff beer (this was the first time I'd got to the airport early enough to get one in) I also enjoyed the various groups of people around me, especially the group of 30- and 40-something 'lads' who were talking about the 'facking football, innit'. I could go on but we've all been through airports and who really give a shit?

The flight left late, as it always does from Stansted, but was smooth and hassle-free all the way and the prevailing winds meant we arrived basically on time as usual. After we'd cleared the cloud layer it was as bright and tranquil as you'd expect. The breaks in the cloud began to appear as we were traversing the channel and gave wonderful views of white horses dancing across the sea. After a minute or so of that we crossed the French coast and the seascape gave way to the irregular patchwork of French fields and grey arterial roads. On the approach to Carcassonne the clouds were sporadic enough to cast individual shadows on the ground which looked as though someone had spilt a glass of water on an expensive carpet. As usual we flew right over the medieval city and marvelled at the aerial view for which the original inhabitants would have praised the Lord. On landing, the senior flight attendant got everyone laughing by inadvertently welcoming us all to Krakow before correcting himself rather shamefacedly. When he gave the usual warning "Be careful when opening the overhead lockers as some items may have moved" I immediately thought "Yeah, they've gone to Poland!" Thankfully, I'm aware I'm not all that funny so I didn't actually say that out loud.

A pleasant 40-minute drive got us to Mum's place in Quillan where I got to play with the dogs, clock the list of 'jobs' I'm doing over the next couple of days (Which includes chainsaw time. Nice.) and eat dinner before we went out to see the opening night of the Chemin des Artistes en Haute Vallee De L'Aude. That is, as the name suggests, an art 'exhibition' where the artists display their works in various locations (presumably near their homes/studios) in the Aude High Valley area, of which Quillan is basically the centre. There were a dozen or so canvases by an artist who looked like he copied photographs but did a relatively good job on most, plus a free gig which is what we really went for. The local Rock group 'G63' did a decent set of their own material and then went straight into the covers section by performing a French-language rendition of Queen's "We will rock you", an experience not to be missed. After 90 minutes of enjoying the performance and bemoaning the bad lighting (the venue's more like a theatre so no decent spotlights and the front row of the band were in semi-darkness most of the time) which meant none of my photos were coming out well we gave up and came home.

Now I'm off to Bedfordshire and looking forward to tomorrow's hard labour.

Monday, 21 April 2008

A prime example of why I'm leaving

First, the background: an MA/MSc/PhD application will come in on paper or online. Paper versions are entered onto the database manually, online versions are transferred from the web system to the database using a background process. Fields from the web system don't always exactly match the database so some things, notably the address, generally need tidying up. There are two addresses: home and correspondence. If only a home address has been entered it's simply copied across to fill the correspondence address too. As the addresses are known to be a problem area the first person to look at the application will check to ensure both addresses are complete. Then the application is processed, a decision is made and an offer letter is printed. When the letter has been checked and stamped it's posted and an email is sent. So, when you look at the database you can generally tell when a letter's been sent as the corresponding email's been sent too.

Fast forward to last week's example of brown stuff meets whirly thing. An email came in saying a particular email hadn't been received (standard emails to applicants are copied to the relevant support staff) which usually means the letter hasn't been sent. I replied saying the letter should have gone out and I would make sure it definitely did later that day as I was about to go into a meeting. The contact (with whom I developed a very good working rapport as I was responsible for her 'area' for an entire academic year when I first started the job over 2.5 years ago) then replied with a complaint and copied in not only my operations manager but also her head of school and two other bigwigs. That meant my department was possibly in line for a ton of shit because it looked like we weren't doing our jobs properly. In turn, that meant I was hauled into the boss's office and given a roasting for sending an 'unprofessional and factually incorrect' email. In fact, my email was forwarded to the entire department as an example of how not to send emails. Nice.

Unprofessional? Quite possibly - I was very casual about the whole thing. I usually am with people who are casual with me, it's what happens when you develop a rapport: there's not so much need for formality.
Factually incorrect? Not really. My email implied that the letter hadn't been sent as the usual email hadn't been sent. On further investigation it transpired that the email address in the correspondence address details wasn't working so the letter may well have been sent but whoever sent it didn't make a note that the email address was invalid. Not many people would as it happens regularly enough not to be a big deal. The letter was reprinted and sent. I then copied the 'home' email address into the 'correspondence' email address and the email went just fine.

Then I did some more checking and realised that the old email address being incorrect meant the old postal address was also incorrect so the poor applicant still wouldn't receive his offer letter as it had been posted (possibly twice) to an address that was nearly 2 years out of date. Yes, this was someone who'd taken their BA at the Uni, gone back to their parent's home and 18 months later decided to apply for the MA. They'd applied online and only supplied a home address so when their application was transferred to the database the home address was overwritten with the new information but the correspondence address was untouched. It's obvious that whoever checked the addresses just gave them a cursory skim to make sure there were two addresses and didn't pay much attention to the details. From that point onwards there were going to be problems and I happen to be the one who tripped over them. As soon as I spotted the source of the error I corrected the correspondence postal address and sent a new letter so the applicant is none the wiser.

Now, the contact in the school could just have addressed the email to me and the situation would have been resolved just as quickly. By escalating it the way they did they upset all the people on the email CC list and my head of department, caused at least half an hour's unnecessary work for a handful of people and managed to maintain the unpleasant status quo very nicely.

Status quo? Yes, the department I'm about to leave is shat on from all directions and all heights. I could whine like a stuck record about the internal politics and questionable decisions that come from within but nothing compares to the crap that's thrown at us from outside. The above example says it all: I had to try to resolve a problem not of my doing and because I sent an interim email to someone I've had a good working relationship with for over 2.5 years our whole department has once again been made to feel like the world is coming to an end. It makes working life unbearable when you can't communicate with 'colleagues' without painstaking care. It makes you feel as though you have to watch every tiny detail and it makes you afraid to say anything at all. Which is why I'm leaving.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The good, the bland and the potentially interesting

I haven't posted anything for a while and one or two developments have occurred so here's an update.

1. I had a follow-up food intolerance test and my candida score has improved from 57% to 83% so although that's a lot better I missed my goal of clearing it completely by March 23rd. Another one bites the dust, but at least there is no wheat, yeast or sugar in dust. (Dust. Anybody? No? Dust.)

2. I bought a digital SLR and am gradually learning how to use it. I've had a few more photos accepted onto the same stock photography website as before so I'm not counting that as anything new but I do now have around 15 photos 'out there'.

3. I followed up an 'ad' I saw on the writers website I subscribe to and after some to-ing and fro-ing I'm just about to submit an article about Japan as a precursor to the article I was originally asked to write about France. The Japan one came about because I said I could do it based on my previous trips there and the editor didn't have any other information about Japan. He liked the first section enough that he wants the rest and I'm sending it to him today. In theory that should mean he'll take my France article and may even pay me for it. I'm not too fussed about the cash: the website itself will be a very popular one as it's linked with a TV show that'll get lots of viewers and a lot of people will get to read the article. That may mean I get some paid work as a result. Still, I'll report back on that one if and when it happens.

4. And finally, I have just over a week to go before my job finishes and I'm officially unemployed. I've applied for quite a few jobs but no sign of any potential employment as yet. I can always do some temp work to fill in the gap and something will definitely come up but at the moment it does feel as though I'm in free-fall and heading rapidly towards a crash landing. We'll see. Even if I am just temping for the rest of the summer I'll still have met one of my 'resolutions' which was to get a new job by July 31st. There's just been another incident at work which highlights perfectly the reason I wanted to leave in the first place but it'll take some explaining so that'll be in a separate post.