Concilio et Labore – “it’s all about ME!”

…or, as I’m calling it, the “Manchester Experiment”.

Saying “It’s all about me” sounds terribly self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Maybe this is, but it’s something that I need to do:

I am going to try out living in Manchester for a couple of months.

2016 marks my 20th year of living in our hectic Capital.

For the first 3 years after arriving in London I was a young guy working at a small tech company, surrounded by lots of people of the same age. Many of us were recent graduates who had moved for the job and lived locally to our workplace. Some of us could be out almost every night. Very sociable. That changed as the company grew. We started to recruit people who lived further away, others moved on, some folks moved back home after a year or two. Some paired off with boyfriends and girlfriends and chose loved up nights in so this social group started to break up.

Then I changed job myself.

For the next 10 years I probably “lived in the world”, more than I lived in London.

I often found myself travelling internationally, both for work and pleasure. I had a frequent flyer “habit” that supported premium status in two different airline programmes. I wasn’t away so much I qualified for a tax exemption, but I had wondered on more than one occasion. I’d even dated people that weren’t in the same country (or at one point the same continent!) as me. My home in London really wasn’t much more than a bolt hole. A place to keep my stuff and sleep when I needed it, near the workplace that I sometimes went to.

Reading it back, it sounds like a lonely existence, but it wasn’t. I was in an almost continuous circuit of conferences and meetings, working with my colleagues, and leaping on planes to go and meet my international friends. The time that I did have at home was “me” time, a respite from the whirl of our conference circuit, and I really didn’t mind that.

The last 5 years have been different again, and during that time I feel that I’ve reconnected with the area I come from in so many ways.

I guess this started in 2010 when I became involved in volunteering with the East Lancashire Railway, and grew during a career-break that was extended by family illness.

My folks are still in the North West and they aren’t getting any younger. 5 years ago my father managed to survive cancer, but it brought me back “home” even more. I already regret that I haven’t seen as much of them as I’d like in the preceding years, so it’s time to make amends. Being around 5 hours drive away just isn’t working for me any more. I’d like to be able to drop in for a brew and a chat, not have to thrash my way through the misery Friday night London traffic and stay for the whole weekend to make it worthwhile.

Many of my closest friends are in the North, I’d say there are more there now than in the South East. Some of them moved there from the South over the years, Northerners that returned home themselves or Southerners that have been willingly “converted”, some are old friends from my early life, while others are new friends I’ve made along the way.

Because so many people I know down in the South East don’t even live in London, but in the circle of “Zone 6-plus” towns that people race home to at the end of their workday, I’ve grown tired of almost everything I do having to be seriously pre-meditated, orchestrated, arranged well in advance. Doesn’t lend itself to anything spontaneous like grabbing lunch together or meeting up for a quick coffee or cheeky pint when you’ve got an hour’s journey each way. For an extrovert like me, it’s a tough way to do things.

A couple of months ago I was talking about these feelings to a friend who lives in the North West. He asked me “Where is it that you feel alive?” “Here, in the North”, I answered, “In London, all I seem to do is exist.”

Another friend told me, “Your soul is already here. It’s time that the rest of you followed.”

I’ve been thinking off and on about this for a while. For more than the past 5 years if I’m honest. When I took my career break and no longer had a full time position in London, a lot of people asked when I was moving back North. They assumed it would happen. They probably know me better than I knew myself at the time.

For a while, things have conspired to stop me going ahead with it. Now they can’t. Now it is time, my turn to come “home”. Back where I feel I belong.

So, from mid May until mid July I’ve got myself a place to call home in the North.

I’ve decided to base myself in Didsbury. A great neighbourhood, close to transport links and lots of other good stuff. A quick hop onto the motorway to go and see my folks – close enough to visit easily, not so close I fall into the trap of being there all the time – a healthy distance! Easy day trips to friends on both sides of the Pennines that I simply don’t get to see enough of right now. A quick drive to my hobby of rail preservation over in Bury. I can even take my work with me too. Manchester has a great tech community which I’m looking forward to participating in.

As for what happens next, once the “Manchester Experiment” is over? Well, I’ll take things one step at a time. Walk before I try running. Come back and ask me in the first week of July.

The Manchester coat of arms contains the motto “Concilio et Labore” – this loosely means “By wisdom and effort”. It remains to be seen how much wisdom has been involved. I feel like I’m making the right choice, but only time will tell. One thing I can assure you of is that it’s certainly taken a lot of effort to get this far, and there’s likely more to come. This is just the first step.

In the back of my mind I hear “Wherever you go, there you are”: that even if you change your surroundings, you’re still the same person inside. But actually I liken it more to being a fish out of water. Twenty years ago, I almost literally washed up in London. Didn’t think I’d stay here this long. Now I’m getting back in the water – no jokes about the great Manchester weather – and I’m really looking forward to it.

Hopefully this is a wise move and it is worth the effort. Hopefully I’m not just being foolhardy and brave.

You can take the boy out of the North West, but…

Last week, a record was released to help raise money for The Christie Hospital in Manchester, a tribute to the life and memories of one of it’s more famous patients, a certain Anthony H Wilson, music impresario, tv journalist, and “Mr Manchester”.

It’s not supposed to be a floor-filler, but more of a fond eulogy, a modern poem, that’s been set to an arrangement of New Order’s “Your Silent Face”.

“Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come round, because something that’s lost cannot be found…”

The first time I saw and heard this I really was teary-eyed, with a lump in my throat.

Not only was it set to a favourite piece of music, but many of the faces staring back at me out of the screen were, like Tony Wilson himself, those from my own upbringing in the North West.

I was never lucky enough to meet him in person, but I was one of those people that grew up in the age of Tony Wilson, the music of his bands on my walkman, his face on my TV. Not only did he run a record label and a nightclub… but he read the news too. Was there anything this man couldn’t turn his hand to? Best of all, he was from the North and vociferously for the North.

It also made me think of a more innocent time in my own life. When I had my whole life ahead of me, when I felt I could do anything. When we’d get the train into Manchester and visit places like Afflecks, and if you’d asked me where Granada was I’d answer “Quay Street”, not Spain.

New Order’s Bernard Sumner wrote about Tony, “He always seemed so young and enthusiastic in spirit, he had the attitude of a man in his 20’s…”, and it was with this enthusiasm Tony made those around him believe that Manchester and the North West could do anything, if only they tried… “This is Manchester, we do things differently here.”

When I graduated from University, I chose to move South, where I’d been offered a job. South to follow the money. Ravaged by 17 years of London-centric Tory policies, the North West didn’t look so attractive to someone in their mid-20’s with a freshly minted degree, I guess.

I found myself wanting to dig inside me for something that I’d become worried might have been lost from so many years in the London rat-race, my own Twenty-something spirit, that bit of me that lives for today, that thinks it can do anything, my own inner Northerner. Was I worried it was buried under a metaphorical jam of red London buses? I needn’t have been.

I looked and I’ve found it. It’s bruised and battered, but it’s still there.

Try as the world might, you can take the boy out of the North West, but you can’t take the North West out of the Man.

One day, I’ll stop wandering. One day I’ll come home.

Those who know me will know that my own family has twice already been touched by cancer. There’s a 50% chance everyone in the UK will need to be treated for cancer in their lifetime. If you liked “St Anthony” you can buy it, and if you didn’t, you can still donate money to The Christie Hospital in Tony Wilson’s memory and help others in the future. Give, and give generously.

Premier Inn Wifi – If only it were consistent.

I recently heaped praise on Premier Inn for providing a good wifi service in one of their hotels.

Sadly, this is not consistent across all their properties. I’m currently staying in another Premier Inn just down the road from the one with the good wifi (which was already full for this evening).

The wifi performance here isn’t great at all…

This is as good as it got. Fail.
This is as good as it got. Fail.

It does have sensibly laid out 5GHz and 2.4GHz spectrum like the other Premier Inn, so it seems the wifi architecture is sound, however what’s different here is the backhaul technology.

The other property was on what appeared to be a VDSL line from a more specialist business ISP. It also had the advantage that it was only shared between about 20-odd rooms.

This Premier Inn is much larger, but based on the ISP (Sharedband) it is likely to be using a link-bundled ADSL2 connection, and is shared amongst many more users – about 140 rooms. I’ve noticed several other Arqiva-managed hotspots using Sharedband as the backhaul technology, and these all have suffered from very slow speeds, high latency and signs of heavy oversubscription and congestion.

Notice the “star rating” on the Speedtest above. One star. Lots of unhappy punters?

I’m currently getting better performance on a 3G modem. (No 4G coverage on my provider in this area.)

It would be great if Premier Inn could offer a more consistent experience in it’s wifi product, and I mean a consistently good experience such as the one I enjoyed just up the road in Abingdon, and not the lowest common denominator of the congested barely useable mess here.

They aim for a consistent product in the rest of their offerings and for the most part achieve it, however if I was only staying here in this property, I’d be asking for a refund for the wifi charge.

Update at 1am in the morning, after the fire alarm went off around 11.30pm and caused the hotel to be evacuated…

I can just about get 3Mb/sec down (and less than 256k up) out of the connection here now, and I assume the large majority guests are sleeping. Still less than great. This is very obviously based around oversubscribed link-bundled ADSL stuff.

Driving in Malta – signs of madness?

Number two on the list of things not to do in Malta, according to my guidebook, is drive.

To a Maltese driver, it seems that road markings, signs, signals, and speed limits are advisory rather than mandatory. This means you need your wits about you.

That bit I actually found easy to cope with by reading the road, anticipating well ahead and driving assertively myself, or assertive as I could be in a tiny Kia with a sewing machine of an engine. Hills, of which Malta has many, meant changing down to 2nd and flooring it, thanks partly to the two suitcases in the boot. Fortunately, many natives also go for the small car too, so you know they are almost in the same boat as you. However, the locals have one big head start… Continue reading “Driving in Malta – signs of madness?”

Matisse @Tate Modern: Nuit de no-light

The Tate Modern are currently staging a fantastic exhibition of work from later in Henri Matisse’s later life – his Cut Out era.

Some of the works are really quite amazing, from the classic Matisse use of colour, through to the sheer scale of the work, filling whole walls.

The exhibition culminates in the famous collaboration with glass craftsman Paul Bony, “Nuit de Noel”, or “Christmas Eve” to you and I.

However, having slowly unwrapped this “present”, layer on layer through the previous galleries, this amazing piece of art felt like an anti-climax, sat in it’s darkened room, with it’s one-dimensional backlighting.

It certainly wasn’t how Matisse must have imagined it: to be constantly changing due to the vagaries of natural light, and the way that it should cast it’s coloured patterns back into the room.

I wonder why the Tate didn’t try to exhibit Nuit de Noel with some sort of intelligent and programmable LED backlight that can emulate natural light, and how the light source would move with the day and with the seasons?

Nuit de Noel was originally commissioned by Time magazine to be put in it’s reception at Rockerfeller Centre. Would it have been lit by the low winter sun, shining down the “alleyways” of Manhattan skyscrapers? Surely we can make that happen with modern technology?

Apparently, according to @gogo and @AmericanAir this blog is adult themed.

Well. If you ask American Airlines or GoGo Inflight Wifi, this blog is blocked because it contains “adult-and-pornography”…

Apparently, you're looking at pr0n
Apparently, you’re looking at pr0n. Right now.

A reader just contacted me from Flight Level 330 to let me know he couldn’t read my blog. (Well, I suppose people need something to help them sleep…)

Looks like it’s the attack of some overzealous content filters, or maybe GoGo Inflight didn’t agree with my opinions on implementing event and public wifi?

Ken Morrison – A simple business philosophy

Recently the UK supermarket chain Morrisons has been in the news, regarding the state of the business, potential job cuts, and a lambasting for the Board at the recent company AGM from former chairman and straight-talking Yorkshireman Sir Ken Morrison, son of the company’s founder.

While CEO of the company, he was known for reportedly “skip diving” on visits to his Morrison’s stores – sifting through the bins to see what was being thrown out and wasted. Sir Ken has a simple philosophy to the supermarket business – “shop in your own shops, get to know your customers and don’t make presidential visits“.

It seemed to work well for him, for Morrisons was profitable for good number of years, until, in 2004, Morrisons acquired Safeway UK (by then already independent from it’s US namesake), a company who I used to work for as a teenager.

One of the things which used to irk me about the way that Safeway was managed was the way that the senior management conducted visits of the stores. When it was known that the regional manager was visiting, significant amounts of overtime became available. The store would be scrubbed top to bottom, the normally messy behind the scenes stockrooms would be tidied up, the shelves would be neatly filled and faced up, and almost every checkout would be open.

This resulted in the management not seeing the real experience, but some sort of show, or “shop in a bottle”.

The very “presidential visits” that Ken Morrison speaks of.

To borrow Sir Ken’s turn of phrase, they left with a “bullshit” experience of what shopping in one of their stores was like. They thought it was okay, and didn’t suck.

Even on short notice “unannounced” visits, somehow the store was tipped off, either by other local managers or by more junior flunkies of the regional managers, fearing for their own jobs if a shop was seen in disarray. Of course, overtime was rapidly offered, and 90% of the time you would take it because you wanted the money.

It seems that Morrisons’ management have picked up this behaviour along with a number of other bad habits from the Safeway acquisition.

One of my own pet hates is the way they build-out the aisle ends with free-standing stacks of items on promotion. This narrows the aisle width, reducing circulation area, and making it harder to manoeuvre your trolley, for fear of knocking over this teetering pile of products.

Obviously the idea is you take something from this wobbly pile to reduce it in size!

Tesco still aren’t much better. It’s a confusing environment of bright yellow price tags, contradictory “special non-offers”, and shouty shelf-edge “barkers”. It’s just a meh experience, and that’s after you’ve battled your way in past all the TVs, clothes and other crap they sell in the big stores.

Also, you’ve got to look if the business model is wrong? Are Morrisons working to a growth-centric business model? In a saturated market such as grocery shopping, the growth most likely has to come from stealing market share from a competitor. This likely comes with a higher cost of sale, as you’ve got to do something to make that fickle customer choose you today. Should Morrisons instead be looking after it’s own customers and working to a retention-based business model?

Rather than providing an unpleasant and stressful experience, do something to make your customers want to come back. You can’t compete on price alone or Aldi and Lidl will take your business away, and the niche high-ends are dominated by the likes of Waitrose and M&S.

I can’t help feeling that devouring Safeway was a meal that still gives Morrisons indigestion to this day, and they would maybe do better following Ken Morrison’s three simple tenets by which he ran the business for many years: good staff, good suppliers, loyal customers.

Read the BBC article and watch the interview with Ken Morrison