Higher Bills & Bigger Profits: The UK’s Utility Companies in 2018:

Which professions are most trusted in Britain today? According to research conducted by “This Week” magazine and the Ipsos Mori opinion poll specialists, doctors, nurses and teachers all feature at the top of the “Veracity Index”, followed by judges, scientists and weather forecasters – who, with a percentage score of 76% are now rated above the police (74%). Television news readers and hairdressers are apparently more respected than members of the clergy (down to 65%), lawyers (54%) and the Chief Executives of charity organisations (50%). At the bottom of the list, predictably, are politicians, government ministers, journalists, estate agents, plus (a new addition to the Index) professional footballers.

This data also reflects the public disenchantment with bankers (38%), the business sector in general and particularly with the private companies which control the supply of the UK’s water, gas and electricity. As the re-nationalisation campaigners “We Own It” point out, “only 32% of the public trust the energy industry and 77% of us believe energy should be in public ownership”. WOI’s mission is to “end privatisation for good so that people come before profit”. Public services, they declare, whether it’s the NHS (National Health Service), schools, water, energy, rail, Royal Mail, care work, or council services “should belong to all of us”.

Allister Heath, the former editor of the City AM newspaper, acknowledges that there is “overwhelming support (68%) for the nationalisation of energy companies”. He considers this to be misguided but unsurprising in view of the “pathetic customer services of many of these firms” and the fact that energy prices continue to shoot up unabated. The “Big Six” – British Gas, Npower, EDF, E.ON, Scottish Power and SSE (Scottish & Southern Energy) – are, in the opinion of “Which?” magazine, largely responsible for the low esteem in which they are held by the public. Which? asked nearly 9,000 energy customers to rate their suppliers on a variety of factors, including customer service and the accuracy of bills. Npower got just one star (out of a possible five) for value for money, British Gas and Scottish Power two stars, E.ON, SSE and EDF three stars, whereas the much smaller energy company “Ovo Energy” received four stars.

On 24th February – just before the “big freeze” hit the UK – the Guardian columnist Adam Vaughan reported that the “Big Six” have been accused of deceiving customers paying expensive “standard variable tariffs” (STVs) by moving them on to fixed deals which supposedly will be cheaper but in fact will cost more.Then, in a front page Guardian article on 3rd March, with most of the UK still covered by snow, Vaughan revealed that E.ON had quietly implemented price increases on the coldest spring day on record. This move, he noted, is expected to be the first in a series of price rises from energy providers and has been described by consumer groups as “ devastating news” for households.

As the Press Association reported on 28th February – based on statistics issued by the energy regulator, Ofgem – there is now a trend for customers who are unhappy with the “Big Six” to sign up instead with one of the many smaller, rival companies such as Green Network Energy, Utility Warehouse, Engie and Ecotricity. “Last year, 5.1 million electricity consumers and 4.1 million gas consumers changed supplier, the highest number for almost a decade”. The “This Is Money” website has pointed out that this option is, however, not currently available in the water sector: “You cannot switch supplier because the 25 water companies across England, Scotland and Wales are responsible for customers in set geographical regions. The only way to save money is to install a water meter or cut back on your usage”. The Independent’s political editor, Oliver Wright, contends that this situation has enabled the water companies “to make gains of at least £1.2bn over the past five years from bills being significantly higher than necessary. Among those worst affected have been the poorest customers, with average water bills now representing 5.3% of their annual income”.

Jim Armitage, a correspondent for The Independent, has focused on what he considers to be the “scandal” of the millions of pounds paid by UK consumers that then go to foreign-owned public services. Swathes of Britain’s energy, transport and utility networks, he has emphasised, “are run by companies owned by other European governments – meaning foreign exchequers reap the dividends which then fund their schools and hospitals while their UK customers struggle with burgeoning fares and bills”.

Statistics published by Graham Hiscott, Head of Business for the left-wing Daily Mirror, have indicated that these overseas energy firms are using the extra money they make in the UK to subsidise their customers in their home countries. He cites examples of the contrast in price increases: E.ON (German owned): UK price rises: Gas 21.6%, Electricity 21.4% , compared to 9.1% (Gas) and 6.7% (Electricity) in Germany; Npower (German owned), + 21.6% (Gas) and +12.7% in the UK, but +11% (Gas) and 0% (Electricity) in Germany; EDF (French owned), +22.9% (Gas) & +12.3% (Electricity) in the UK, though just +15% (Gas) and + 3% (Electricity) in France. Scottish Power is a subsidiary of the Spanish company Iberdrola, but both British Gas (part of “Centrica”) and SSE are UK-owned.

In an article captioned “Britain for sale: How long Before a Foreign Power Turns Off Our Lights?”, the Daily Mail commentator, Alex Brummer, has expressed his firm belief that auctioning off our vital services to overseas interests is a risky strategy that has not been adopted by other countries and takes no account of what might happen in the future.

Filed under: Politics, Society | Posted on March 7th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

London Fashion Week A/W 2018: The Perks & Perils Of A Catwalk Career:

IMG_1596Have you ever thought about becoming a model? Do you dream of emulating high-profile fashion super-stars such as Britain’s Cara Delevingne, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Ben Allen and Germany’s Benno Bulang? Do you wonder how you could get a job exhibiting the latest creations by designers such as Jasper Conran, Emilia Wickstead, Margaret Howell and Erdem at key events such as the recent London Fashion Week (LFW:16 – 20 February), how much you’d get paid and what the working conditions would be like?

The first and perhaps hardest step is to be somehow “discovered”. That was how it all started for Naomi Campbell: she was apparently shopping in London’s Covent Garden when she attracted the attention of Beth Boldt, the head of Synchro Model Agency. Within just a few months – still only 15 year’s old – she featured on the front cover of the British version of “Elle” magazine. Similarly, Kate Moss, was spotted at the age of 14 by Sarah Doukas, the founder of Storm Model Management,at New York’s JFK Airport. As Storm told the Huffington Post journalist, Rosy Cherrington, they “just never know”when or where they’ll pick out potential new talent: It could be in supermarket queues, at festivals or on any high street across the UK.

So how, asked Cherrrington, does a model agency decide who to approach? Surprisingly, she observes, there’s no minimum height specified on Storm’s website. However, in addition to the “obvious physical requirements like bone structure plus that essential ingredient of being photogenic” they are looking particularly for people with “personality, charm, style, with something to say for themselves and a good work ethic”. This contrasts somewhat with the job description posted online by the luxury lifestyle brand, Nina Naustdal Couture Ltd, who have been looking for models for a future TV project. They emphasize that they “need girls who are at least 1.80m and guys at least 1.85m. They should also be charismatic people between 18 and 30 years old who are not afraid to be in the spotlight, are in good shape and have walking experience”.

IMG_1585If you don’t want to wait until an agency “scout” notices you while you are choosing your yoghurt in Tescos or Sainsburys, how else can you break into the fashion world? The traditional route is to apply to join a model agency – but you should check first whether they are genuine and legitimate. The best-known ones, such as Elite, Storm, Premier and Model 1, would seem to meet this criteria, but many others do not. On 16th February, coinciding with the first day of LFW, the head of the British Fashion Council (BFC), Caroline Rush, (as reported by the London Evening Standard columnist Lizzie Edmonds) highlighted the fact that the British Fashion Model Agency Association (BFMAA) was established at the end of 2017 “ to promote diversity in the industry and to help support and protect all models, ensure that they are treated appropriately and feel safe throughout any job”. Carolyn Franklin MBE, Professor of Diversity at the Kingston School of Art, acknowledged in her introduction in the LFW Handbook that “In 2018, it is simply not enough to ‘create” without accountability or ethics”.

The BFMAA replaced the Association of Model Agents (AMA) set up in 1974. Its website warns that “there are plenty of scam artists trying to deceive young impressionable people who are interested in modelling”. It is not common practice, advises the BFMAA, for legitimate agencies to ask for a fee when you sign up with them or even at a later stage. None of their income should come from their models, only from clients who want to book them. The US Federal Trade Commission’s list of “indications that you may be dealing with a scam” is equally applicable in the UK. For example, be careful if you are told you have to use a specific photographer (so can’t choose your own), if they promise big salaries and they assure you that they’ll get you lots of work (no modelling or acting job is ever a certainty). Moreover, modelling agencies aren’t the same as modelling and acting schools: “ These claim to provide instruction (for a fee) in poise, diction, skin care, make-up application and the proper walk” – all of which will supposedly guarantee you a successful career in modelling thereafter.

IMG_1632Both the BFMAA and Model Management Ltd (MM) offer practical suggestions for aspiring models: “Maintain a healthy life-style, work-out regularly, apply a nutritious diet, get sufficient sleep and avoid smoking and alcohol. Drink lots of water and avoid too many late nights. A tired model is not a working model – and it shows”. It’s fundamental, they say, to look after your skin and hair, use quality skin and hair care products, keep make-up to a minimum and make sure you take it off before you go to bed. Never get your hair cut or dyed without first consulting your agency. You should be available for as many model castings as possible: These are effectively job interviews and should be regarded as such. If a model agency does offer you a contract, declares MM, “make sure that it’s reliable and includes the standard conditions of the industry. Keep an eye on the following points: percentage of commission, duration of contract, cancellation terms, exclusiveness and any hidden costs or fees”.

IMG_1588 IMG_1589 IMG_1606 IMG_1610 IMG_1618 IMG_1626 IMG_1633 IMG_1638So if you are finally booked for a fashion show, how much will you get paid? The Netflix Social Media Manager, Lexi Nisita, has suggested on Refinery29.inc that the figure could be around £775, though of course models who have become well-known and hence are sought-after earn a great deal more. But if you’re determined nonetheless to make it as a model, then, with a bit of luck, we’ll see you one day on the catwalks at LFW.

Filed under: Society | Posted on February 20th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Hearts, Flowers & Emojis: Romance In The Digital Era:

Have you ever read a book published by the Mills & Boon organisation? If yes, you might not want to admit it: Their novels have been depicted by many feminists as “escapist fiction for women, misogynist and reinforcing gender stereotypes” – with titles such as “Nurses In Love”, “Runaway Bride” and “Moonlight Over Manhattan”. Despite such criticisms, the company – as the Daily Mail journalist, Sarah Oliver, has pointed out – continues to prosper, more than 100 years after it was founded in 1908: “Mills & Boon sell 5.5 million books a year – that’s one every four seconds. They are printed in 26 languages across 109 countries with 150 new titles added every year”. According to the Guardian columnist, Laura Bates, the company publishes 75% of all romantic fiction sold in the UK.

Mills & Boon, however, have now themselves acknowledged that, in the 21st century, “the definition of romance and what being romantic means is no longer clear”. Although Britons spend £1.6bn on gifts and treats for Valentine’s Day “many are unsure whether to convey their affection with cards and flowers, or just a text”. Which is why the company – who insist its books have always kept pace with changing social attitudes and values – has produced a “Definitive Guide to The Art of Romance”, consisting of 20 rules which it believes will “make it easier for reluctant romantics to be successful in finding love and happiness”. The top ten recommended gestures are: Holding hands, having a cuddle, buying a surprise gift, giving flowers to your partner, planning a spontaneous trip away, a candlelit dinner, breakfast in bed,cooking a home-made meal and writing a love letter. Also included in the list: Running a bath for your partner after they’ve had a long day, organising a spontaneous date night, waiting up for your partner to get home, watching the next episode of your favourite TV series together and letting them choose the TV movies, giving your partner a foot massage, sharing an umbrella with your partner. Among the apparent “Top Ten Passion Killers” are (at No.1), mobile phone addiction (especially using it during dinner), being stingy with money, talking with your mouth full, rudeness to those around you, criticising your partner and dominating the conversations between you.

Research conducted by Mills & Boon has indicated that 37% of 18-24 year-olds “do not think that traditionally chivalrous acts, such as standing up at a table when your partner arrives – have a place in the modern world.” Furthermore, even more significantly, that 52% of those questioned said they communicate most with their partner digitally on social media, by text,WhatsApp, video chat and emojis, compared to 46% who communicate most in person. These figures correlate closely with the statistics on “Dating Sites Reviews.com” revealing that half of British singles have never asked someone out on a date face-to-face, only online – which has rather raised the question (as the Daily Mail correspondent, Deni Kirkova, has emphasised) as to whether “flirting in person has become a lost art with young Brits hiding behind their keyboards” in order to chat up a potential partner. Moreover, notes the DSR, 48% of singles have never broken up with someone in person – it was done online or via texting.

The Pew Research Centre (PRC) in Washington DC has concluded that a third of people who have used online dating haven’t yet met up in real life with someone they initially found on an online dating site – which of course also means that 66% have indeed progressed to getting together in person. Around 22% of online daters, say PRC, ask someone to help them create their “perfect profile”.

Does this suggest, as the Media Post.com commentator, Erik Sass, has asked, that “social media is actually sort of anti-social when you consider its tendency to displace real face-to-face communication”? He has quoted the results of a survey by IKEA of 12,000 people in 12 big cities around the world, 68% of whom admitted that they prefer to communicate with other people online, including people in their own home – “the classic scenario of messaging someone in the living room from the kitchen”.

The main disadvantage of online dating, in the opinion of the New York magazine, Psychology Today”, is that it is “a category-based rather than an interaction-based process and people never fall in love with categories”. Blake Eastman, an American body-language expert and founder of “The Nonverbal Group” would seem to agree. He told the CNN reporter Ashley Strickland that, although “ we feel that we don’t need to look people in the eyes to communicate any more, at the end of the day, we’re designed for human contact, not a computer screen”. He did, though, accept that “real life dates” may have lost some of their charm, often because they are too “standardised”, especially in restaurants: “A table between two individuals staring at one another can become an interview with adversarial posturing”.

The self-described “ world-renowned relationship expert” and founder of “Sexy Confidence”, Bostonian Adam Lodolce, (similarly cited by Strickland) shares Eastman’s view that there is a real risk we are killing off our social skills “by retreating behind a glowing screen of of information that offers no chemistry” – but he is also convinced that there are many of us who want to go back to the day when you’re sitting in a coffee shop, making eye contact and there is this mysterious moment when you don’t yet know each other. “As a society, we are seeing that there is still a real way to meet people”.

Happy Valentines Day!

Filed under: Society | Posted on February 6th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

A Lot Of Old Rubbish: Disposing Of Britain’s Waste Mountain:

Have you ever been to Quaglino’s, an upmarket restaurant in the St James SW1 area of London? If not, then you’ve missed out on the opportunity to sample it’s “brasserie-style menu”, among which is featured a Herefordshire beef fillet with green peppercorn sauce for a mere £39 and a 30 gram portion of Siberian Baeri caviar for a slightly pricier £75. While considering what to order for your main meal, you could sip one of their “classic cocktails” such as “El Sombreron”, which consists of “zacapa 23, lime and cantaloupe juice, sipsmith, sloe gin and fresh passion juice”, at a cost of £20.

However, you’d probably have to drink it directly from the glass. As the Evening Standard’s Consumer Business Editor, Jonathan Prynn, reported on 10th January, the owners, D&D London, which runs a total of 40 restaurants & bars, have banned plastic straws from all of their premises. D&D’s Chief Executive, Des Gunewardena, acknowledged to Prynn that he’d had no idea how many straws his staff had been giving out to customers (1.9 million in 2017). This move follows a similar decision taken last autumn by the national pub chain Wetherspoon (70 million a year) and in June by the All Bar One company (4.7 million a year). As Prynn pointed out “Plastic straws are seen as a particularly harmful form of waste because they are made from material that is very hard to recycle and their small size makes it difficult to stop them ending up in rivers and seas. Alternatives can be made from paper”.

The problem of what to do with our discarded plastic has, along with the pressure on NHS hospitals, has dominated the attention of the media during January – far more than Brexit, the Prince Harry-Meghan Merkle wedding in May and concerns about British tennis player Andy Murray’s hip injury. The Guardian columnist Sandra Laville observed on 5th January that many MPs are demanding the introduction of “a 25p extra charge on takeaway coffee in an initiative that could see disposable cups banned in five years time”. Laville quoted statistics provided by the House of Commons Environmental Committee which reveal that 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups are thrown away each year in the UK, almost 5,000 every minute, amounting to 30,000 tonnes of waste. Only 0.25% of them can be recycled, because most of them “are made from cardboard with a tightly bonded polyethylene liner, which is difficult to remove and means they are not accepted by paper mills”. Starbucks and Costa last year began to offer 25p discounts to customers with reusable cups and Pret A Manger have now doubled this to 50p on hot drinks “in an effort to change people’s habits and reduce waste”.

But why the sudden sense of urgency? What has really caused the panic reflected in newspaper headlines this month has been the decision by the Chinese government to ban the importation of rubbish not only from the UK but from several other developed countries such as European Union members, the USA and Japan”. In summer 2017, Guo Jing, an official at the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) informed the World Trade Organization that from 1st January 2018 his country would no longer accept 24 types of solid waste, including polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) bottles, unsorted scrap paper, discarded textiles and vanadium slag. This was – so Jing told journalists – all part of a campaign against “yang laji” (foreign garbage) “ which is loathed by everyone in China”.

The conservation photojournalist, Alex Hofford, has emphasized on “The Conversation” website that the impact of China’s decision will be far -reaching. Although other nations such as Malaysia and Vietnam also take in recycled plastic, their limited capacity won’t compensate for the lost Chinese market, which in 2016 processed more than half the world’s recycled plastic waste (7.3 million tonnes) – 500,000 tonnes of which was shipped from Britain.

What, asks Hofford, will now happen to all that waste? It’s a dilemma which, according to the Guardian’s environmental correspondent, Matthew Taylor, on 3rd January, is already creating a crisis for local authorities in the UK. He noted that Simon Ellin, the chief executive of the Recycling Association, “has already seen some lower-grade plastics piling up at recycling plants around the country”. Furthermore, because Britain has relied on exporting plastic recycling to China for 20 years, no-one knows what will now happen: If it no longer pays for his Association’s members to take and sort the waste delivered to them by the councils, they might stop accepting it altogether, which could then result in local authorities suspending their rubbish collections: “It could really lead to chaos”. In the opinion of Lee Marshall, chief executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (cited by Henry Bodkin of the Daily Telegraph), Councils will either have to increase taxes or cut waste services: “Neither will be popular: In some places in England, rubbish is already only collected once every three weeks”.

The LitterBins.co.uk website acknowledges that it’s understandable why many people don’t think about what happens to their rubbish once it’s been taken away. But if it can’t be recycled or incinerated, it has to go somewhere – usually to landfills: However, “that land has to be prepared first, to prevent decaying matter and bacteria leaking into water sources and causing health issues in the local area”.The European Commission has meanwhile issued suggestions as to how we can all be a bit less wasteful. Among them: Buy only the amount of fresh food you need and enjoy your leftovers by turning them into exciting new dishes, put your “non-meat scraps” into a compost bin and have your old, unwanted clothing shredded so it can be turned into packaging, insulation or raw material for textiles”.



















Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on January 15th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

It’s The Festive Season: So Forget About Brexit (For The Moment):

How do you feel about the big European Union debate? Perhaps you share the view of much of the UK population who – according to William Wallace in the Independent on 29th October – are completely fed up with the whole thing. The media and the politicians might be obsessed by the negotiations with the Brussels bureaucrats – but most people’s priority at the moment is more likely to be planning for Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve and deciding what presents to buy for their friends and family.

A survey conducted by NatCen Social Research – featured in the latest edition of The Economist magazine – has concluded that very few voters have changed their minds since the Referendum last year, that those in favour of leaving the EU still think it’s a good idea, but that it’s being handled very badly. In the opinion of The Guardian on 9th December, the agreement reached between British Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU commission the previous day – on how much the UK will have to pay for the “divorce” (£40 billion?), the future rights of EU citizens in the UK and what will happen with the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland – was the “easy bit; the most difficult part lies ahead”.

Has all this seemingly interminable wrangling adversely affected the mood of the British public? Apparently not. In November, the Office For National Statistics (ONS) released “its first data on national well-being since the Referendum on June 23rd 2016”. This indicated – noted the International Business Times on November 7th – that “Britons are happier, despite a squeeze on household incomes, higher inflation and a weaker pound”, although the ONS also acknowledged that “as we have not yet left the EU, the implications it will have for the daily lives of people in the UK remain to be seen”.

An article on November 8th by Steve Doughty, the Social Affairs Correspondent for the pro-Brexit Daily Mail, was unequivocally jubilant about the ONS report. “Forget Brexit doom and gloom”, proclaimed the headline: “ Levels of contentment have hit record levels in the year after the decision to leave”. Instead a plunge into worry and fear, wrote Doughty, “there is convincing evidence of rising happiness and satisfaction with life”. The ONS findings, he asserted “undermine claims that people are alarmed by the prospect of economic reverses and deeply concerned about the future”. On the contrary, “the national anxiety measure now stands at 2.91 out of ten, compared to 3.13 in the spring of 2011”.

The ONS figures correlate closely with those contained in the Legatum Institute’s Global Prosperity Index 2017. This analyses each country’s economic quality, business environment, governance, personal freedom,social capital, safety and security, education, health and natural environment. It ranks the UK at No 10 – below Norway, New Zealand, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Canada and Australia, but above Germany (11), the USA (18), France (19), Spain (20) and Italy (30). The highest ranked Latin American nation is Costa Rica at No.29.

The World Happiness Report 2017, issued by the United Nations, has the same top ten as the Legatum Institute, though Costa Rica (12) and the USA (14) are both further up, while Germany (16) and the UK (19) are lower on their list. The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, has published a chart showing the variations in happiness across the UK: it has denominated the district of Craven in North Yorkshire as the happiest place in the UK with 8.3% and Hertsmere in Hertfordshire the saddest with just 6.87%. Hackney is portrayed as the most downcast borough in London.

Other available statistics somewhat contradict the rosy picture provided by the ONS. Andrew Macaskill, a correspondent for the Reuters news agency, on 4th December highlighted a poll conducted by the research firm Survation, which revealed that “half of Britons support a second vote on whether to leave the EU and a third said they would be worse off financially outside the world’s largest trading bloc”. Chris Morris, the “Reality Check” correspondent for BBC News, reported on 29th September that between July 2016-June 2017, 64,400 UK citizens applied for Irish passports, followed by applications for Spain (4,558), Sweden (2,002), Denmark (604), Poland (332), Finland (115), Greece (34), Czech Republic (27), Croatia (13), Romania (7).

The London Evening Standard on 29th November focused on the possibility of a “public backlash” against Britain having to pay a Brexit “divorce bill” of around £50 billion .The same newspaper on 5th December drew attention to the fact that millions of rail users will be hit with fare increases of up to 3.6% in January – the biggest for 5 years – “due to Brexit and the slump in the pound” .

More immediately: The Good Housekeeping magazine has carried out an investigation into the cheapest items currently on the shelves of the UK’s main supermarket chains. It’s verdict (as quoted by the Guardian’s consumer affairs correspondent, Rebecca Smithers, on 28th November ): The “Brexit effect” has pushed up the price of Christmas. The cost of a turkey the same size as one on sale for £8 at Christmas 2016 will now be £8.99; Brussels sprouts, 88p (58p last December); Mince pies £1.58 (£1.49); Christmas cake £3.99 (£3.00); parsnips 88p (58p); Carrots 35 p (29p). Cranberry sauce, though, has stayed the same at 55p and if you’re partial to Christmas pudding, that’s gone down from £3.49 to £3.00.

Filed under: Politics, Society | Posted on December 12th, 2017 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Sounds Familiar: The Melodies We’ll Be Humming To This Christmas:

How many times have you heard the song “Jingle Bells” over the past week while you’ve been out shopping? If it’s only been five or ten times, perhaps you should consider yourself lucky. Nigel Rodgers, the founder of “Pipedown”, a group that campaigns for more silence in public places, calculates that department store staff will be obliged to listen to this and other traditional melodies around 300 times between now and Christmas Day.

In October, Rodger’s organisation published the results of a survey by The Good Hotel Guide, which reported that “The omnipresent curse of annoying muzak” is one of the most hated aspects of hotels today”. Pipedown’s efforts appear to be having some effect: Marks & Spencer have decided to “switch off the music” in its branches for the whole of the year, including the festive season and ASDA will introduce “a daily Christmas-music-free hour from December 15th”. Several other big retailers, however, have done the opposite. As the Sunday Times columnist, Iram Ramzan pointed out in his article on 12th November, John Lewis will be relaying Christmas music for the first time and some of its branches will be inviting “small groups of musicians to play and sing to create more atmosphere”. Sainsbury’s, noted Ramzan, is “another enthusiast: usually it provides music only in its cafes, but  this Christmas, seasonal tunes will blare throughout its stores”.

Customers who find this annoying can of course go elsewhere. Employees, however, don’t have this option and so have to put up with the same songs being repeated day after day: As a result, Linda Blair, a British clinical psychologist, told Sky News, they “become unable to focus on anything else and spend all their energy trying not to hear what they’re hearing”. The Business Insider commentator, Lindsay Dodgson, suggested on November 2nd that they should buy some earplugs, though she didn’t explain how they could then attend to their customers.

Dodgson’s observation that “Christmas music is something you either love or loathe” highlights the fact that, not only is it almost impossible to escape from it at this time of year, but that it always seems to consist of the same tunes. As a contributor to the “Red Chestnuts” website has asked, “Why are there no new Christmas songs? Why am I listening to exactly the same ones that my dad and probably my grandfather listened to at my age?” He’s not against religious songs such as “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings”, but it’s the “secular ones” he hears in the stores that he’s most fed up with.

The American cartoonist and CNN correspondent, Jake Tapper, has acknowledged that, because “new Christmas songs have failed to break through”, we’ll all be humming identical tunes to last year and many years before. Examples are the inevitable “White Christmas” (Bing Crosby 1942), “Blue Christmas” (Elvis Presley 1957), “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” (Wizzard Rock Band 1973) ,“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Band Aid 1984), “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (Maria Carey 1994) and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (orginal version recorded by the 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1952). In her list of “the 12 worst Christmas songs ever inflicted on humankind”, the Time Out correspondent, Kate Lloyd, has included “Drummer Boy” and “Under The Mistletoe” (both by Justin Bieber), “Santa Baby” (Madonna), “Milennium Prayer” (Cliff Richard) and “Christmas Tree” (Lady Gaga & Space Cowboy).

Meanwhile: Data compiled by the price comparison website “GoCompare” has confirmed that “Black Friday” (this year, 24th November) now signals “the big start to the UK’s Christmas shopping period”. It predicted that £3 billion would be spent during the event with 49% of the shopping being done online. The Guardian journalists Sarah Butler and Zoe Wood reported on 25th November that Britain’s online retailers had indeed won the battle for sales on Black Friday, with overall spending up 3% on 2016, despite a decline in the number of shoppers visiting stores: When Currys/ PC World on Oxford Street opened its doors at 7 am, “only one customer, who had ordered a laptop, was waiting”.

An investigation conducted by the finance website, Bobatoo, has revealed that most of those questioned “are planning to spend less than £200 on Christmas food, drink and decorations” – which correlates with the estimate by the Guardian commentator Rob Walker on 25th November that 53% of Britons won’t spend more than £10 on a bottle of sparkling wine. Furthermore, “on average, UK shoppers will buy presents for between five and ten people”. Only 7% will be giving presents to more than 20 people; 42% plan to spend less than £100 on presents for their partner or spouse, 23% between £100 – £150, 17% more than £150 and 8% over £200. Bobatoo concurs with GoCompare that the majority of Christmas shopping (64%) will be done online this year. Research by the Dutch financial services corporation ING has shown that one in seven Europeans were unhappy with what they received for Christmas last year. More than 50% kept the gifts anyway, 14% sold them, 10% tried to return them to the store and 9% of people in Holland and 11% in the UK returned the gifts to the giver.

According to the Greeting Card Association (GCA), one billion Christmas cards are bought in the UK, mainly in shops and stores rather than online. Charity Christmas cards raise an approximated £50 million for “good causes”. If you’re planning to send a card abroad by airmail, the last posting dates for most of Europe are the 15th and 16th December and for the Caribbean, Central and South America, Thursday 7th December.

Filed under: Music & Dance, Society | Posted on November 29th, 2017 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

World Travel Market 2017: The Long Shadow Of Brexit & Catalonia:

DSC_0293Have you decided yet where you will be going on holiday in 2018? If you have already chosen Italy, then you are among the 60% of UK residents for whom that country will be the preferred destination next year – ahead of the USA (54%), Greece (48%) and Cuba (24%). These statistics were published in the World Travel Market (WTM) 2017 Industry Report to coincide with the opening of WTM at London’s Excel Centre (6th – 8th November), which was attended by around 51,500 senior travel industry professionals, as well as government ministers and the international media.

DSC_0295Several Italian cities – Rome, Milan, Venice & Florence – feature in Euromonitor International’s top 100 Global Rankings 2017 and the country’s “strong tourism performance” is mainly thanks to its wide range of attractions and the fact that it is perceived as being relatively stable compared to many of the other options available elsewhere in the world. For the same reasons, according to the WTM Report, this has been a “bumper year” for Greece and the prospects for 2018 are even better.

DSC_0296Although Spain remains a popular vacation venue, in the opinion of Olivier Jager, Chief Executive Officer of the travel industry analysts ForwardKeys, it could be adversely affected by the current turmoil in Catalonia. The Travel Daily News International correspondent, Tatiana Rokou, on 31st October quoted Jager as emphasizing that “domestic political unrest almost always deters visitors and that is what we are seeing now – a 22% collapse in international flight bookings for Catalonia”. Because many visitors arriving there then proceed to visit and explore other parts of Spain, any further decline “will be of great concern as travel and tourism represents such a large proportion of the Spanish economy, over 14% of GDP”.

DSC_0299During WTM, the staff at the Catalan stand, which was positioned on the corner of the extensive Spanish pavilion, put on a brave face and did their best to conduct “business as usual”, handing out colourful maps of the region and leaflets promising “a top notch programme of activities in Barcelona as part of the Year of Cultural Tourism 2018”. However, their chief tourism official, Patrick Torrent, acknowledged in an interview with Associated Press at WTM that (as depicted by Travel Industry Today) “ the freedom fight come with a price” and that the region will probably see a 10%-12% fall in tourist numbers during the 4th quarter of 2017, a level of decline equating to around 450 million euros, with the large bulk of the fall related to a drop-off in business travel to events such as conventions”.


IMG_1551As both The Daily Telegraph and Bloomberg Politics have pointed out, Catalonia – along with the Madrid region, Valencia and the Balearic Islands – is a net contributor to Spain’s tax and spending accounts: “It pays about 8.8 billion euros more than it receives, a longstanding complaint of the separatists”. The Economist magazine noted in its November 4th edition that “more than 1,800 companies, among them CaixaBank, Banco Sabadell and Freixenet, have been prompted to move their legal domicile out of Catalonia since 1st October”– a trend, the deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont told Sky News from Brussels on 11th November, that has been encouraged by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is fiercely opposed to the region’s push for independence.

DSC_0304There are, so the Global Risks Insights journalist, Niall Walsh, contended on October 10th, “some striking parallels between the proposal for Catalan independence and the Brexit vote in 2016: An increase in business risk generated by a climate of uncertainty, rising political and social instability and a fresh challenge to the effectiveness of the European Union”. The WTM Industry Report 2017 has concluded that Brexit threatens to undermine London’s dominant position as a place to do business and that “competing cities that have emerged in an attempt to steal it’s crown include Paris, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Dublin and Amsterdam”.

More than half (53%) of all travel trade respondents – states the Report – believe Brexit will have a negative impact on their companies and that it has already damaged the UK’s reputation as a holiday destination. Over 20% of European Union citizens working for British tour operators have apparently already left the UK “because of the long-term uncertainty over their status” and 50% of these organizations are having difficulties recruiting new EU employees. The British Hospitality Association has highlighted “how crucial EU workers are to UK firms, especially because of their language and service skills – and warned that there are not enough British people with the right expertise to replace them”.

DSC_0305An equally gloomy assessment was issued on 6th November by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS). Under the headline “EU businesses say goodbye to UK suppliers as Brexit bites into key relationships”, it asserted that the uncertainty has meant that 20% of UK companies with EU suppliers have found it difficult to secure contracts that run after March 2019 , 8% say they have already lost contracts as a result of Brexit and 35% feel unable to prepare due to the lack of progress on a future trade agreement between the UK and the EU.

The CIPS Chief Executive, Gerry Walsh, considers that “it is already too late for scores of UK businesses who look like they will be deserted by their European partners.” They simply can’t keep their suppliers and customers waiting , he declares, while the negotiators get their act together: “The lack of clarity coming from both sides is already shaping the British economy of the future – and it does not fill businesses with confidence. The clock is ticking”. Yet despite all this apparent despondency, 31% of those questioned by WTM predicted that Brexit will have no prejudicial consequences at all and 16% that, on the contrary, it could prove to be extremely positive.






Filed under: Travel | Posted on November 14th, 2017 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Language Show Live 2017: A New Venue, Fewer Visitors & Some Unhappy Exhibitors – So Back To Olympia Next Year:

IMG_1488Would you like to become an interpreter or translator? If this idea appeals to you, then now might be the ideal moment to consider making a career in this sector. As the Financial Times columnist, Michael Skapinker, pointed out on March 22nd, British companies will need to recruit many more linguists if they wish to expand their global trading links after the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019. He cited the results of a survey conducted last year by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the education group Pearson, which indicated that French, German and Spanish are most in demand by British businesses.

But where, he asks, will they find people who speak them? According to a British Council report, the number of students at UK schools learning French has fallen by around 33% and German by nearly 50% – with Spanish being the only one of these three showing an increase. Hence, there are extensive employment opportunities at the disposal of anyone from abroad currently resident in the UK and who is fluent in one or more of these languages. The Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) website highlights what it describes as the three main options in this profession: Interpreting at conferences, political events and trade fairs; Translating for business people at company meetings or during negotiations; Working in the public sector – such as translating at police interviews, attending court cases, interpreting for hospital patients or helping people with a limited knowledge of English to access essential educational and housing services.

Because many airports function 24 hours a day,the UK Visas & Immigration Department is “in constant need of interpreting services”. The majority of the work is “face-to-face”, freelance and with no minimum or maximum requirement in terms of hours. The fees (Monday to Friday) are £48 for the first hour then £16 per hour from 8.01 am – 6 pm and £20 ph 6.01 pm – 8 am; Saturdays: £72 first hour and then £26 ph; Sundays: £72 first hour and then £32 ph. Training for all these types of employment is available in both London and other cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. South Thames College in Wandsworth, for example, runs a 13-week Community Interpreting course (£275 / £380 for international students) and a 15-week part-time Diploma in Police Interpreting course (£450 / £650 for international students).

It was thus no coincidence that this topic provided the main theme for the Seminar Programme during the Language Show Live (LSL) 2017 at the Business Design Centre in Islington from 13th – 15th October. Among the speakers featured were Karen Stokes of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL): “Becoming a Professional Translator – Qualifications, support Network and Success”; Eulalia Pessoa-White, a freelancer with the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) – “What It Takes to be a Public Service Interpreter”; Pamela Mayorcas, Chairperson of ITI – “A Day In The Life Of A Translator: Find Out What They Do, How They Spend Their Day, What Helps Them To Be Successful”; Sue Leschen (CIOL) – “Terms & Conditions for Freelance Language Professionals”; Dr Lindsay Bywood (University of Westminster) – “What can I do with my translation qualification?”. Other relevant issues covered were: “Why is it good to learn languages?” (Professors Ludovic Serratrice and Theo Marinis, University of Reading) and “Embracing Brexit and Language Learning for Business” (Michelle Ogbonna, Chief Executive Officer, Museum of Knowledge).

A total of 100 exhibitors had booked stands at this year’s LSL. Although a very wide range of languages, such as Cantonese & Mandarin, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Gujarati, Nepalese, Persian, Vietnamese and Welsh were on offer, 40 of the stands were promoting Spanish courses – either in Spain or Latin America (for example,Don Quijote, Learn Spanish in Mallorca, Sevilla Language Center) or in the UK (including the Universities of Hertfordshire, Portsmouth, Surrey, Kent & Manchester Metropolitan and the Instituto Cervantes London). Not all the exhibitors, however, were convinced by the choice of the Business Design Centre as the location for this year’s event or happy with the position they had been allocated for their stand: It was noticeable that there were far fewer visitors on the Saturday than on the equivalent day in 2016 at Olympia in Kensington, the traditional venue for LSL. A new company called “Evolved Events Ltd” has come to the same conclusion: They have just bought LSL from the previous organisers, Upper Street Events, and will be transferring it back to Olympia in 2018 (9-11 November to avoid coinciding with the Frankfurt Book Fair and Expolingua Berlin): All parts of the Show – stands, seminars and classes – will be on the same floor, which they believe will “work best for exhibitors and visitors alike”.

Aspect Exhibitions, based in Ashton, Northampton, advise anyone thinking of booking a stand at a trade fair to first “obtain a floor plan of the venue, assess the likely flow of visitors, the places they are more likely to gather and the spaces best avoided”. Anecdotal evidence (they say) suggests that the majority of visitors instinctively turn left when they first enter an exhibition hall – in which case, having your stand somewhere to the left of the entrance will “automatically be in a good position to attract customers”. However, being too close to the entrance is not a good idea as it tends to be congested and visitors “are liable to walk straight past your stand” when they come in – and similarly when they head for the exit “as they’ve already seen enough and are ready to leave”. The most beneficial place (asserts Aspect) is probably adjacent to the exhibition’s cafe or restaurant “as long as your stand does nothing to disturb people relaxing or enjoying refreshments” – so no loud multimedia demonstrations, blaring music or light-shows.IMG_1486IMG_1497IMG_1493IMG_1487IMG_1506IMG_1504IMG_1502

Filed under: Society, Travel | Posted on November 1st, 2017 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Did You Have A Good Flight? Perhaps Not, If You Used A Low Fares Airline:

You might find this difficult to believe, but travelling by plane used to be fun. At least, that’s according to the AOL Lifestyle columnist, Rebecca Dolan, in an article captioned “Remembering the Good Old Days of Flying”. Once upon a time, she wrote wistfully, flight attendants were dressed in high fashion, leg room was included in the price of a basic ticket and meals were practically restaurant quality. On some Pan American World Airways routes, it seems, passengers would be “served hors d’oeuvres on a silver tray” – something you’re unlikely to experience now unless you are booked into first class on Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad or Singapore Airlines. This didn’t, though, guarantee Pan Am’s survival: The company went bankrupt in December 1991. Doug Murray, a correspondent for “Slice.ca”, has also enthused nostalgically about “how civilized flying used to be”: Air travel was a “glorious thing”, you did it in style: “Today, unless you’ve got a bucket-load of cash, flying is barely a step up from taking the bus”.

Patrick Smith, an American airline pilot who writes about flying at www.askthepilot.com, however, disagrees with both Dolan and Murray. In the New York Times in May, he dismissed as “mythical” the idea that there ever was a “Golden Age” of air travel. He acknowledges that “resentment against the commercial airlines has hit fever pitch” (especially after the forced removal of the Chinese-American Dr David Dao from a United Express plane in April) and that “Yes, things were once a little more comfortable, a bit more special”. He doesn’t deny either that “airlines could and should do a better job – at communicating, at treating their customers with dignity and respect “and that he doesn’t enjoy claustrophobic planes, delays, noisy airports or wasteful security practices”. But he points out as well that, not only are tickets cheaper, we also have a wider range of options: “There are planes going everywhere, all the time”. Furthermore, that the aircraft of past decades were louder, more “gas-guzzling and polluting”, that as recently as the 1990′s, smoking was still permitted on board and that “globally, the last 10 years have been the safest in the history of commercial aviation”.

Nonetheless, as Larry Light, a reporter for CBS News, noted in May, a recent survey carried out by the American Customer Satisfaction Index has found that “consumers rate rate airlines as one of their least-liked industries”. Many passengers, it concludes, are particularly unhappy about excessive “crowding” – caused mainly by cabins being “reconfigured to fit in more seats, legroom shrinking by three inches in recent years and the overbooking strategy that the industry has adopted to ensure that planes are as full as possible.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) data quoted by the BBC journalist Adrian Goldberg has shown that the number of “air rage” incidents on UK airlines has quadrupled over the past three years. This is partly because – as the Jet2 Managing Director Phil Ward admitted to the BBC – some passengers drink too much in airport bars before going on board and then become disruptive during the flight. However, it’s also because (declares the refund.me website) both the airlines’ customers and their employees “ are increasingly dissatisfied with how they are being treated”. Charles Leocha, President of Travellers United, feels that passengers are reacting against being regarded simply as “cargo”.

In the UK, the image of the airline industry has undoubtedly been undermined by the attitude of Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s Chief Executive, towards his customers: Among his most notorious remarks: People who forget to print their boarding pass “should pay 60 euros for being so stupid”; “Are we going to say sorry for our lack of customer service? Absolutely not”. “What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand? We don’t want to hear your sob stories”. On this last issue, however, O’Leary has been forced to back down by the “furious” CAA Chief Executive, Andrew Haines, following the cancellation of 50 Ryanair flights a day up to the end of October and (reported in the Guardian on 30th September) the decision to “scrap 18,000 flights on 34 routes between November 2017 and March 2018” – all, contends O’Leary, a consequence of problems with his pilots’ holiday rotas.

Apart from the delays and cancellations, what really annoys airline customers (asserts traveller.com) are: the expensive snacks and drinks, the use of in-flight mobile phones (unless you’re the person making the call), the poor quality of cabin air (a Daily Telegraph investigation has revealed “worrying evidence of toxic fumes contaminating aircraft”) and the “constant stream of announcements offering services and goods such as perfume, cuddly toys, car hire, train tickers and scratch cards” .

By far the most aggravating factor, however, is “the very limited leg room provided in economy class”. Smarter Travel’s “in-flight experience” commentator, Ed Hewitt, has described the available space as “ narrow, cramped and getting worse”. He has observed that, technically, his body does fit into a typical airline seat – as long as he sits up and keeps his hands and arms folded into his lap. A Business Travel Airline Survey has revealed that Ryanair has the narrowest economy seats out of the 32 airlines researched, offering just 16 inches of width, with Air Canada’s seats the widest at 18-18.5 inches. British Airways are 8th in this list for width (between 17’3 – 18.1 inches).

Sometimes (notes Airport World.com) it’s other passengers who can make your journey a misery: For example, putting their elbow firmly on the shared arm rest and leaving no room for yours; constantly getting up to retrieve items from the overhead lockers; people behind you trying to get off the plane first; babies crying throughout the flight; and (the one that causes the most arguments), someone “reclining their seat so far back that they are practically in your lap”.

There’s now a solution to this last problem: A pair of “knee defenders” that you can buy for only $21.95. You just have to clip them to the bottom of the arms of your lowered tray table. They then prevent the seat in front of you from being tilted backwards. This doesn’t contravene any current aviation regulations, so there’s nothing the other person can do about it – except protest vociferously.




Filed under: Travel | Posted on October 2nd, 2017 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Revolution In the Fashion World: The Catwalks Face Up To the Social Media Challenge:

IMG_1392Has London Fashion Week (and the ones in New York, Milan and Paris) become an anachronism? The BBC clearly thinks it’s still important: It devoted at least half of its prestigious “Today” morning radio programme on Friday 15th September (the first day of the latest LFW, which finished on Tuesday 19th September) to the event, with one of it’s presenters, Mishal Husain, broadcasting from the venue at The Store Studios in the Strand. As she pointed out, British Fashion Council (BFC) statistics show that the fashion industry is worth around £30 billion pounds to the country’s economy and that it supports 880,000 jobs in the UK.

IMG_1434LFW is thus “ an international event that showcases British fashion and the global brands that choose to exhibit in London because of its reputation for creativity”. However, the industry is all about “big business” and so is evolving rapidly. Nearly 7 out of 10 women (as the BBC’s business reporter, Lucy Burton noted) have bought clothes online. Sian Westerman, the BFC’s President of Business & Investment, acknowledged to Husain that e-commerce has caused “a great fashion revolution”, that it has dramatically changed customers’ expectations in terms of speed, delivery and accessibility to fashion. The “fast fashion brands” now turn to social media platforms as much as to the fashion weeks for an indication of the latest trends.

IMG_1391Richard Christofoli, Debenham’s Marketing Director, likewise accepts that it is “a fluid, dynamic and challenging situation” for the established high-street retailers:  Customers can now shop online and then collect at the store, or browse in the store then use their smartphone to decide what to buy and from whom. Christopher Bailey, formerly Burberry’s chief executive but now it’s chief creative officer, believes that LFW is all about “trying new things, experimenting and innovating, making sure we are talking to customers, media and buyers, pushing ourselves”. He agrees, however, that the rise of social media has created a completely different way of looking at every industry, not just fashion and that it has had a disruptive impact on “the fairly rigid timetable of fashion weeks around the world”.

This view is shared by Jo Ellison, Fashion Editor for the Financial Times, who pointed out to Husain that “the fashion industry has always been a very visual medium for most people, which makes Instagram the perfect platform for people to understand it”. Brands can now deliver their messages to a global audience to whom they didn’t previously have access. People are now able to find out things for themselves – they don’t really need the “ordination” of newspaper or magazine fashion editors anymore. Furthermore, brands are now offering “trans-seasonal” clothes: customers are merely “adding to their wardrobe each time, there’s not an abrupt change each season, there’s much more continuity”.

Nevertheless, as Christopher Bailey emphasizes, London continues to be “a creative hub for the creative industries”. That’s because we have “the best creative art schools in the world, which attract people who want to be educated here and then set up their businesses here”. Bailey argues that this provides enormous potential for post-Brexit Britain, that “Britishness” resonates globally due to the combination of the country’s “beautiful, historic, almost Victorian values” with its island culture, eccentricity and self-expression and that “street style”, which began here, is still “the strongest than anywhere else around the world” . He desperately hopes, though, that the current “anti-immigration climate” doesn’t undermine the openness with the rest of the world or inhibit “the collaboration with people of different cultures which is fundamental to any creative business”.

Bailey’s assertion that London is ideally placed to enhance its leading role in the global fashion industry is fully supported by the BFCs statistics: More than 5000 guests, including “the international press, buyers, broadcasters, influencers and industry insiders from 70 countries” attended the latest LFW. There were 85 catwalk shows and presentations and 33 other events. Burberry presented its new collection, as did Versace’s VERSUS, Fashion East and House of Holland. New participants were Tommy Hilfiger (USA), Nicopanda (USA), Emporio Armani (Italy) and Ralph & Russo (UK). Also featuring prominently were “internationally celebrated British designers” such as Emilia Wickstead, Fyodor Golan, Margaret Howell, Pringle of Scotland and Temperley London. The BFC described the diversity of the LFW schedule as “ a testament to the inclusive and innovative British fashion industry on display in London”.



Filed under: Media, Society | Posted on September 18th, 2017 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »


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