A happy customer?

I’ve been quite impressed so far with the high speed train service from the southeast coast to St Pancras. 

We’ve had a few problems, but HSS1 is the service that Southeastern seems to prioritise – it’s been the one that’s kept running as far as possible in the snow (18 December was a nightmare) and when there’s strikes. 
But it’s not all smooth running:
– it’s hugely expensive (“only the price of foregoing a daily coffee and croissant” I think was the slogan early on?);
– the trains don’t always couple properly at Ashford, and both halves don’t always make it on time in any case;
– at really high speed I feel just a bit bumped about and travel sick…

Despite these things, my overall impression is positive.

To digress for a minute, actually I was fuming yesterday about the press coverage of a campaigner from the north Kent coast complaining that there were loads of empty seats on the 07.12 train from Ramsgate. 
Yes of course there are!  One advantage of the high speed train is that the journey is shorter – so people can get up a bit later and still make it to work at the time they used to on the old service.
Besides, there jolly well ought to be empty seats at the start of the line. 
We need them when they get to Ashford – rush hour trains are often packed and on the way home this evening there were people sitting on the floor in the door areas.  Ludicrous when the service is effectively first class throughout.
I’m terribly sorry for the people who’ve had services cut – the people of West Malling in particular have it tough, and presumably their house prices will decrease without a regular train service to attract commuters.  They should indeed fight to restore services that have been cut because in rural areas, public transport like the trains can be a lifeline. 
But that does not of itself mean that the high speed service is A Bad Thing.
As for the claim that no one is using the trains – this service has only been running properly since December 2009, and the towns and villages where the high speed service stops are only just being identified as commutable.  Of course there are people that see commuters themselves as A Bad Thing, but that’s a whole other story. 

But faced with what is actually a pretty good service, the small things really get to you. 

The worst thing for me is the paper tickets.  I got used to using Oyster in London, and the smart card (with paper ticket receipt just in case) was far superior to the wretched cards with magnetic strips.  It only failed once, and I was able to ring the Oyster helpline, and have it up and running again the following morning, with the one paper ticket I’d had to buy to get home refunded with no fuss at the nearest tube station.

But paper tickets are another matter. 
I’ve gone through four so far – that’s one every 8 weeks since we moved here (and I only travel three days a week!  That’s 24 days use per ticket on average…)  When one of these failed after two days I simply didn’t bother replacing it for a month.  I just showed it and the lovely staff at St Pancras, Ashford and on London Underground just buzzed me through.  This was never a problem although it was a source of stress to me if I was running a bit late.

The weirdest thing was the day that a ticket machine at Victoria underground swallowed my ticket.  It gave me someone else’s goldcard instead (I guess it could have been doing this for a while…).  No one was available to help, so I went to the tube ticket office.  They couldn’t help and directed me to the mainline station.  They told me they couldn’t help and directed me to my home station.  My home station accepted the other person’s goldcard but couldn’t just issue me a replacement ticket, I had to buy temporary tickets until a manager could agree it.
Eventually he did, and I was given a ticket for a refund.
Then we moved house and I lost both forms and tickets. Oh.

I found them again a few weeks ago.  This was well past the 28 day limit that Southeastern sets, but as the replacement tickets are not cheap I applied the Which? rules on seeking redress.

Let me share my top tips:
– no matter how unfair it seems, companies are allowed to set limitations on refunds – acknowledge this;
– stress that you are a regular user of the service/ product in question;
– set out the circumstances clearly and concisely that meant that you could not comply;
– note that, to you, the out of pocket expense is serious;
– point out that although there is no obligation on them to act, taking the above into account, they could consider refunding you as a gesture of goodwill.

I received a letter saying that they will refund me and the cheque is in the post 🙂

I wanted to tweet my thanks to Southeastern, but they’re not on Twitter yet…

I tried to send tweet @ Southeastern trains to say thanks for goodwill refunding of my tickets after deadline. But they’re not on, so can’t!
7:17 PM Apr 22nd via web

Things that would make the service better? 
– running the two trains that couple at Ashford separately, giving a service Ashford- London every 15 minutes rather than every half hour;
– switching to a smartcard system compatible with Oyster that can also be used pay-as-you-go on buses in Ashford (surely this should be part of franchising arrangements?  If not, Ashford’s Future should insist on it);
– sorting out the irregular bus between Stratford International and Stratford stations, which often gets my husband there too late for the train;
– getting the train into Ashford on time before 6pm so that I can meet the limit on my childcare timings (if the train’s late, I can face a fine);
– similarly, not retiming the 1710 to arrive those few minutes later – it’s essential it gets in on time (or slightly early!) as childcare options in Ashford are so limited… 
– resisting the temptation to maximise profit by stuffing us all in like sardines – we’re charged a premium price, we deserve to get the premium service for it!

Safe as houses?

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright Tony Grant and
licensed for reuse under this
Creative Commons Licence.
I had an interesting phonecall earlier today.  My mobile rang at work and someone asked for me by my married name. That almost never happens…
It turned out to be a Radio 4 researcher who had read my blogpost on moving to Ashford.   The consumer affairs/ personal finance show (to go out later this year) is to be fronted by Alvin Hall – the finance guru with the fancy bowties.  The edition they called me about was on buying houses – whether the babyboomers have got all the ideal housing stock, whether people are just a bit impatient and ought to save up more and wait a bit longer, that kind of thing.I repeated my usual joke that I had with friends in London when I was in my 20s.  We used to say that the only way we’d everget onthe housing ladder was to marry someone about 10 years older than us that already owned property.  Of course that’s exactly what happened for me in the end, but it wasn’t actually a plan! 

So while I may not be the ideal person for that show (about 10 years too old, owned a flat previously so not a first-time buyer, and I’m a “new commuter” rather than a struggling local, at least at the moment), there are a few interesting things about housing in Ashford:

  • there’s one couple (Fergus and Judith Wilson) that own lots of Ashford’s rental housing stock, although they are gradually selling it off – that should mean more first-time buyer homes on the market;
  • the high speed train may well encourage others like us to move out here from London as opposed to Hertfordshire, Surrey, Essex etc. when looking for more space, decent schools, bigger houses;
  • 29,000 more households are to be established in the Ashford area – but what sort of households are intended?;
  • there’s a difference between the villages and the new estates and south Ashford in terms of the type and cost of properties.

I asked the researcher how they got hold of my mobile number – after all, I don’t publish it, not on here, not on any social media sites.  I was told that having found my blog they looked up my ISP.  Investigative journalism skills, eh? 
But a tiny tad scary if you’re not used to the rather comfortable almost-anonymity of the internet and the idea that your blog is really only read by Russians who want to offer you viagra and a few lovely eurobloggers, of course.   

I suggested that they might be best hanging out around Park Farm Tescos to find their ideal interviewees. 

So, if you are someone or know someone who fits the bill and wants to be on a radio programme, leave me a message here.  I’m sure the same researcher will pick it up… It could be quite exciting!

Leaders’ Wives…

… or how who you are married to makes you a news story…

(image from bbc website video package)

In the week since the election was called the focus has (thank God) swung a little bit more away from the women that the leaders of the three most popular political party’s leaders are married to, and back onto policies. 
Not that I’m actually that clear whether the parties have actually thought through the costs, feasibility and the practicalities of implementation of some of the things that they are campaigning on (may be they don’t have to – I guess that’s why there’s a much lambasted, primed for cutbacks but nevertheless non-political and permanent civil service) – but that a whole other issue.

We’ve seen the party leaders portraying themselves as family men.  And that’s meant a focus on the wives, two of whom it is reported have their own press officers.
For the current Prime Minister’s wife that’s probably not too much of a change, after all, Sarah Brown has been acting every inch the political First Lady for a couple of years now, for example leading events for International Women’s Day. 
So I guess it was the contrast that meant a lot was being made of the fact that Miriam Gonzalez, Nick Clegg’s wife, intended not to take a key role in the election campaign (and can’t even vote in it!). 
But even this story was eclipsed by the coverage of Samantha Cameron’s pregnancy. More of which in a moment.

All three leaders’ wives are intelligent, successful women in their own right. 
All three are probably entirely capable of saying interesting things in a debate on Mumsnet, although as a PR executive, tax lawyer and director of an upmarket stationers, it’s unlikely that they’d ever be asked to be the subject of one.

It’s the underlying messages that are interesting.
The coverage of Sarah Brown in recent months has pretty much been I-love-my-husband-he’s-great-and-handsome-and-that’s-why-you-should-vote-for-him-girls.  I guess the message is the Prime Minister is portrayed many ways but he’s human and a decent person loves him.  I agree with the Times article from the time of her Labour Party conference speech- this is patronising towards women voters, but good PR tactics and sadly (for feminists), terribly effective (ladies, we are our own worst enemies sometimes). 

Sam Cam (as she has become known – I sympathise as someone with the first syllable of my first and last name identical!) has been a high profile political wife since David Cameron won the Conservative party leadership.  
But she’s now having to endure a public pregnancy – bad enough that people feel they have the right to pat pregnant stomachs on mere mortals but to be publically pregnant through a stressful election campaign, with your own events calendar for the campaign, while being accused of timing it to be a publicity stunt and having still fairly recently lost a child?  Not only not fun, but something you should never have to go through.  And as for the look-how-viral-our-leader-is stuff from tories online… yuck.
I can’t work out how she’s got the time off work to do the election campaign…  I’m pretty clear there’d be no special leave for my husband from his employer if I was a candidate.  And certainly none the other way round given my job.

The Private Eye cover (“Leaders’ Wives”) called Miriam Gonzalez “the other one”. Well yes, as the one with the husband least likely of the three to be prime minister, that’s probably fair enough. 
But The Austrialian news is interesting on this point – is getting-on-with-it, you’re not voting for me but for my husband attitude actually earning her respect?  And if so, is it ironic given that attitude if that respect were then to be somehow transmuted to her husband?

As you can probably tell, I have a bit of an issue with the whole First Lady role.

Essentially we do not have a first lady in the UK constitutional set up. Nor tradition. 
We don’t vote for a prime minister (see here and here ) no matter what the UK press seem to think, because we don’t actually have a Presidential electoral system. 
And if we’re not really voting for the prime minister, we certainly shouldn’t be voting on what their wives say, think or do, or would or would not do as a ceremonial role were their husband to gain office.  
There’s a lot of campaigning going on to get women more involved in politics – I can’t help but feel that “vote Dave, get Sam”, or “vote Gordon, get Sarah” undermines the getting women into power in their own right. No matter what Glenys Kinnock says about it all being ok.
But at least MPs will still be able to employ their partners as assistants (that’s a tradition going back to Mrs MacMillan driving prime minister Harold around in their car!) 
But again, the UK political set up is actually very flexible. We do not have a written constitution, so if a prime minister wanted his wife to take on a First Lady role (or, if Caroline Lucas – the only female party leader – were by some incredible fluke make it to no.10, first gentleman) there’s no constitutional impediment to them so doing. 

And even if you have a written constitution like the USA, it seems the role of the First Lady needn’t feature, can be defined by the President and his wife themselves but can still have public money spent on it.  Of course that’s a whole discussion we still need to have here…

So a vote for Dave and Sam, or Gordon and Sarah, may well be a legitimate concept.
Even if it sets my (feminist) teeth on edge…

Where’s the change on offer for safe seats?

 (in the interests of impartiality, I should point out that these are showjumping rosettes and are available in a wide range of colours!)

This morning at the station I received my first leaflet of the election campaign.
The leaflet was for the incumbent MP and the word that leapt out was “change”.  Everything was about change, more of the same or a change. You have a choice and a chance for change.  Yes, change is a good thing indeed.

I’ve already pointed out the nonsense of the leaders debates as I have no option of voting for the leader o f a political party, merely for a constituency member of parliament.  So my choice is not going to be the sort of choice the press seem keen to portray.
But there’s an additional issue that affects the choice I actually get at the general election…
I live in a constituency where you can pretty much weigh the vote for one party. 
That party (once boundary issues have been taken into account) has about 54% of the popular vote in this constituency.  
So I guess I live in one of the 382 constituencies that the Electoral Reform Society has described as so safe that the election is over already.

So effectively my MP, expenses allowing, has a job for life.  As did his predecessor, and the one before that too. Regardless of competence, because of the party that they belong to.
In our first-past-the-post electoral system, that’s effectively it. 
This area becomes one for rookie parliamentary candidates to cut their teeth, and I don’t expect to be doorstepped.  Much. (Actually the house is new to the area too so surely someone should call and canvas if they want our votes?)

Democracy may well be the least worst alternative, but if I didn’t want to vote for the incumbent and to stand a chance to get the candidate of my choice elected, my only choice would be to move to an area which was more marginal and where there would be a real contest, or by choosing to live in an area where my party of choice always won the safe seats. 
But isn’t moving house rather a drastic way of getting to express oneself democratically? 

According to the Electoral Reform Society, first-past-the-post is also damaging for the prospect of getting more women into politics:

First-Past-the-Post lets down female candidates with the huge advantages it hands to incumbents, and by affording so few opportunities to break into national politics. It lets down women voters and constituents by limiting their choices and fostering a negative, aggressive political culture.

But while first-past-the-post is the “normal” system for Westminster elections, it is not the only voting system that voters are used to across the UK.  While STV is in use in Northern Ireland (and for local elections in Scotland but there’s a right old mix of systems in use in Wales and Scotland), Londoners use the Supplementary Vote system to choose the mayor, and we all use the Closed list Proportional Representation system for European elections which means that voters do not have any say over the individual candidates they helped to elect for each party. 

This proliferation of systems is confusing to say the least.  But it does prove that it is not beyond the wit of the British electorate to do sometihng more than mark an X in a box next to the logo of the party they want to elect.

There are two systems up for discussion in this election look to be Alternative vote plus (AV+) and the Single Transferable Vote (STV).  Politicians like to say that they keep a link between voter and representative at a constituency level (which is great if you live in an area where you actually have a choice for a change).  AV+ fulfills that by offering the chance for county-level top-up seats on top of the local area MPs – but does that create two tiers of MPs? 
In any case, multi-member constituencies can still offer that link and also, as AV+ does, give voters in an area more chance of having someone of their political views representing them in parliament.  And as the Electoral Reform Society points out, sophisticated proportional representation systems like STV offer us the choice of voting for the people we want and not just the parties (and that can matter – there’s a massive difference between a vote for John Redwood and a vote for Damian Green, or a vote for David Miliband and one for Dennis Skinner – sometimes its good to remember that most parties are themselves coalitions).

But ultimately, I’m not particularly bothered about which alternative system is used, and I’m not espousing one or another personally as it’s fast becoming party political and at the moment that is something that I do not do publically.

Essentially, if I have no intention of moving house any time soon, on the basis of voting trends in this area, if I were not to vote for the incumbent MP, I could potentially spend the rest of my adult life without ever getting someone I voted for as my representative in my national parliament.   I realise there are thousands and thousands of voters out there for whom that has been the case.  Doesn’t that seem a waste?   
A voting system that removes the concept of the safe seat, and requires everyone competing in an election, and crucially valued the votes of every voter more than first-past-the-post… is that too much to ask? 
Or is that one change too far for the candidates in this constituency?

New Who…


 (amazing regeneration wallpaper from www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho)

Yes, pleased to report that I enjoyed the Eleventh doctor’s first outing “the Eleventh hour” (available on BBC iPlayer here).

Thanks to my son’s perhaps unsuitable addition to sci-fi TV programmes (the Sarah Jane Adventures, MI High etc.) I’ve had the opportunity recently to rewatch the Christopher Eccleston era Doctor Who episodes in the last couple of weeks (the less scary ones at least).  I remember now how I feared that the actor that played the singing policeman from Blackpool and the young Casanova couldn’t surely be a better Doctor than the one-that-looks-a-bit-like-my-husband?  But after the slightly disappointing “Christmas Invasion” (worst line?  “This new hand?  It’s a fightin’ hand!” in a cod Wild West accent), David Tennant became the best Doctor Who that I can remember, and I remember back to Tom Baker… well, the repeats at least.

I was one of the five people that watched and enjoyed Party Animals (the series which made Matt Smith’s name 🙂 ), so I was actually quite pleased when he was cast, and didn’t respond “Doctor Who?” (hohoho).  Though I have to admit I was bothered about being older than the Doctor for the first time.  The friendship with the companions is important and I was a bit afraid that a younger Doctor meant more romance stuff and less exciting adventures.  The wedding dress (which I guessed was coming) at the end of the episode suggests that Stephen Moffat might have thought about this too… 

I was genuinely enthusiastic about Stephen Moffat taking over at Doctor Who and I’m glad to say, so far it’s lived up to my expectations. 

There are reviews galore online and I’d rather you watched it and formed your own views. But some highspeed random thoughts:
– new titles – great graphics, not so sure about the theme remix;
– liked the kid with the talking bedroom wall, hated the praying to Santa business (yes, we know the writers are atheists, but this felt petty);
– liked the not-quite-done-yet Doctor and the revamped tardis;
– liked the “corner of your eye” business and the camera technique of  “what did I see?”;
– liked the references to earlier themes and incarnations: the William Hartnell library card, the stealing clothes from the hospital (Paul McGann does that!), the inability to know when exactly he’s returning to (like the Girl in the Fireplace);
– loved the “village” atmosphere of Leadworth where everyone knows Amy…

The monsters were scary enough to mean that my son certainly won’t be seeing it for a few years (prisoner zero and the prison guard ships i can’t remember the name of), and the Doctor as the protector of earth theme was pleasingly in place. 
The dialogue is quick-fire and less “Coupling” than the Blink episode from series 3 (where both heroine Sally Sparrow and even Martha Jones sounded suspiciously like Sally Harper at times), and the oneliners are thick and fast. 

Essentially, >>jealous<< that I’m not writing it.  Though that means I get to watch it and get the enjoyment from that. Can you see the grin from here?

(And – given the random groups of people that read my blog – having read two thirds of the Ben Cook/ Russell T Davis email correspondence that forms “Doctor Who: the Writer’s Tale” and seeing the struggle going into Torchwood: Children of Earth, if series 4 gets the go ahead, email me via the contact sheet if you need a new writer…)

Very much looking forward to next week!