Category Archives: banks

Money, money, money…

I had two things on my mind this morning, but ironically they ended up being about the same thing.

The first was this post by Leo Babauta on Zen Habits: The No-Gift Holiday Challenge which is about spending Christmas in other ways, other than the money spree. Coupled with Cyber Monday two days ago, it couldn’t have been better timed. It’s all about the joys of spending Christmas in other ways, other than the Big Spend. He’s right. The most precious gift we can give of each other at Christmas is time and each other. I wish I could have an hour in the company of all the people I’m giving presents to, and all the people I’ll get presents off. That would be enough for me.

Leo says this: “Do we really want to teach our children that giving is really all about buying? Do we want to teach them that to show love, you must buy something? Do we want to set an example of consumerism instead of creativity? Are we saying that the only way a family or friends can get together is if we spend a crapload of needless money?” – and he’s right.

Sometimes a gift is so well chosen, so perfect that it’s a real addition to someone’s life. My best two have been cameras, both bought by my family for me. They give me the ability to record all those things I’d forget and to keep them as a little burst of happiness when I need it. My film camera opened up a whole new world, and though I got it back in 2002, as my 30th birthday present, it’s been the gift that brought me the most pleasure of anything. Whether it was Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Morocco, Cuba, family events, the countryside near me, Manchester… that camera has been everywhere and recorded everything I’ve ever treasured in the last 10 years. The second is the digital camera I use every day – yesterday I got a picture of Tilly being cute, of Steve with a blue tit in his hands (it had flown into the lean-to) and our barn lit up (it looks like a nativity scene without Jesus!).

The nicest gifts are the ones you see people using or wearing all the time. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the pictures I bought my mum from Brazil on her wall, the photos I took of Manchester on my sister’s wall, the photo of Paris my brother took on my dad’s wall, the t-shirt I hand-painted for Steve, the graffiti t-shirt I made for Jake. None of these cost a lot of money, but I know they are all treasured. That’s what gifts should be – symbols of love. Something that, when you look at them, reminds you of other people’s love for you. I’ve got the two house-warming gifts from Joanne on my mantelpiece – the photo of my cat, Basil – more lovely now he’s no longer with me – the fruit bowl is filled with pine-cones and baubles. Every time I get in the hammock (not very often!) or look at it, I’m reminded of Deb. Those are great gifts. The cardigan I’m wearing now that my sister bought me… the fluffy socks I wear in bed. They remind me that other people care about me.

But Leo Babauta received a couple of comments about being a Grinch because he didn’t spend much money on his children – as if, without money, Christmas is crap and you aren’t showing any love at all. He makes the point more eloquently than me about why this is so wrong, and these comments are a symbol of consumerism at its ugliest, where children are taught that unless you spend a lot on them, they are worthless and you don’t love them. His response is here.

He’s right. I’ve had more pleasure making presents for my mum and step-dad, my dad, Steve, Jake, my sister (I LOVE what I’ve made for my sister!) and I know that they’ll love them too. It’s sad that some children are endlessly disappointed if you haven’t spent a huge amount of money on them, and what’s saddest is that we have done this to our children ourselves.

It reminded me that those without money are the only ones to have to think about it. When I had money, I didn’t have to think about it. Now I don’t have much, I think about the value of every single penny. “Is it worth it?” I ask myself. “How much pleasure per penny will this give me? How much use will I get out of it?”

I know my best moments on Christmas Day will be when I talk to my family, or when I see them – and those moments I have every day – petting Tilly before getting up, her excitement on seeing Mr Fox, reading people’s glorious blogs, seeing into other people’s lives and sharing a bit of their loveliness.

But all this ties into a conversation I had with Steve yesterday about the potential downgrading of France’s coveted AAA status. He was asking what it all means. Essentially, it’s no different from credit ratings for people. If you borrow a lot and pay it back promptly, if you have the means to pay a lot back, they like you. AAA. You’re a good customer because you borrow and give back all your interest and you have the means to do so. Next down the chain are those who haven’t got the means to pay back a lot. And, at the bottom are those who have no means to pay back what they borrow and what they’ve borrowed in the past doesn’t get paid back. I guess Greece is our big example, but then I think there are at least fifty countries who must have a worse credit rating.

So what actually happens?

You can’t borrow as much. Or you have to borrow unscrupulously. Just because you don’t have means doesn’t mean you can’t get it from somewhere. Look at those companies who remortgage your house for you and ‘tie up all your debt’ for 1475% APR. And if not them, in a barely legal way, then some street loan shark.

Even a jobless, penniless guy can borrow a tenner from his friends. And if he doesn’t have friends, there’s always some dodgy geezer able to lend him the cash at a ridiculous rate. I think that’s what happens in countries like Zimbabwe if they need cash. They go to another dodgy geezer and borrow from them. Remember Barclays? They of the 30% monthly APR ‘Barclaycard’? Just because certain African countries in the 70s didn’t have the means to pay back what they were being offered didn’t stop Barclays lending it to them, did it?

So it’s meaningless to me to lose your credit rating – a vague threat that you won’t be able to borrow ludicrous amounts of money you couldn’t pay back anyway.

This is where I get a bit religious. It’s no flipping wonder Jesus’s first major act as a prophet was to turn over all the tables in the money lending bit of the temple. He realised money IS the source of A LOT of bad stuff. Mohammed did a sensible thing too – which is why Islam does not allow usury – or interest. In fact, it was a sin in the Catholic church too – and one pope made it a heresy to even believe that usury – lending money with an interest rate attached – was unacceptable. Islamic banks work on the principle that interest is wrong, but have get-out clauses to get around it. Oh well.

So it all kind of comes together, this consumerist Christmas and the AAA status. The only people who profit – as they always have – are the money lenders. And I forgot about that for a long time. Money dazzles, especially when it is non-existent. Cards, credit cards – they all take away that sense of the value of money. I could get a withdrawal card and get my money out of La Poste without a trauma, but I like the process of having to go in to get cheques cashed or get my money out. I can’t remember the last time I paid for anything with my card. All bills, including my 500€ taxe fonciere bill, are paid in cash. It definitely helps to keep an eye on what I’m spending.

That said, it IS nice to give at Christmas, to see your children’s faces light up. Nobody said that stuff had to be new, first-hand, expensive or shop-bought, though. Jake’s best present this year was a second hand motorbike. He loves that bike. It still cost a bit, but as a combined effort, it was definitely worth it.

I almost can’t look at the papers at the moment. Today, DC is on the front pages doing some kind of ‘I told you so’ dance, telling off the Eurozone for dragging the world into the mire. We’ll say nothing of the USA, the faltering Chinese economy, the massive Japanese debt, daily alerts about Greece, austerity budgets in France.

I said yesterday in relation to another matter that people should get their own house in order before pointing the finger. He who lives in glass houses and all that… but there’s a huge issue in England at the moment that is really stuck in my craw at the moment.

PFI schemes. You won’t know what these are maybe, or how ludicrous they are but when I tell you, you’ll be dumbfounded that anyone could have agreed to them. Put it this way, you might as well have given all your money to Kerry Katona and seen it go up her nose. At least it would have been more entertaining and done less damage.

Here’s the thing. Set up in 1992 under John Major, they snowballed under Brown. Just to get that straight. Conservative idea. Labour misuse. Pigeons come home to roost under Con-Lib government. Nobody is absolved from blame over this.

When you know what PFI schemes are, that’s important, because each and every one of our politicians contributed to the problem, worsened the problem and then we, the people, will suffer.

Basically, the idea is this: in order to build new public buildings when the Treasury coffers are empty, you contract out the buildings. You offer the contracts to developers and building businesses. They build a new hospital or school with their own money, and then they lease it to the people who will be using it. In the case of hospitals, health care trusts. In the case of schools, local authorities on the whole. Thus, you get a shiny new hospital or school for nothing. Yeah, right.

The leases run a bit like mortgages, in principle. The hospitals and schools pay the developer interest and a lease fee and then after 25 years, they get the building. In theory, should things go wrong, it’s like renting: it’s not your problem to fix.

In reality, it’s possibly the world’s most stupid idea. It’s stupid because the lease-back fees are exhorbitant. The interest rates would make loan sharks blush. The pay-back terms aren’t just over 25 years, but sometimes over 60. Things were built that just didn’t need building. I know there’s no reason hospitals and schools shouldn’t have a wonderful atrium and modern art and lots of glass and look totally unlike schools or hospitals.

Lots of studies agree that the very appearance of schools and hospitals puts people off what they’re supposed to be doing there. But when you’re on a budget, you don’t deck your house out in Farrow and Ball, or buy a conservatory. You build a shed and paint with B&Q budget paint. Sure, it doesn’t look as good, but it does what it needs to. More importantly, it doesn’t saddle you with debt for needless changes.

Some people will point to the benefits of PFI schemes like how they have modernised or streamlined things. But at what cost? And couldn’t those benefits have come just from building the same buildings with public funding – always cheaper – than private funding? All we’ve done is lined the pockets of the developers. Sure, we have shiny hospitals and schools and so on, but at what cost?

The cost, of course, was initially soaked up by the people who were paying for the leases – the hospitals themselves. So what happens when you have a high mortgage or repayment rate? You cut other things. You stop having your daily can of coca-cola or you stop paying a man to cut your grass.

This – on a grander scale – is what happened in the PFI hospitals. They cut other things. And the majority of expense is always staff. In a school, about 80% of the budget is staff. I guess it’s a little different in hospitals because of the costs of machinery and so on. But staff are easy to cut. It’s easier to get rid of a nurse – or just fail to reappoint when they move on – and fill their shoes with an auxiliary. Services get stretched thin. Staff get stressed. Terms for repayment get renegotiated and you’re the loser again. You need to find more funds.

You’ve got two choices. You stop paying and default, with all the consequences, or you go cap in hand and ask for more money from the Treasury. Central and local government put you in this position, but they’re now slapping your hands as if you’ve been willingly messing about with your budget. They give you more. But unfortunately, they don’t have bottomless pockets, so that means somewhere else, a cut has to be made.

And guess what? All the hospitals who have been putting up with shit buildings, decrepit units, MRSA-discos-in-the-making, those hospitals and Trusts who’ve been frugal – the Government take from them to give to you. The government robbing the ants to give to the grasshoppers.

Imagine it this way. Your neighbour bought a shiny new car. He bought it on ridiculous finance. You told him other ways to borrow the money, and actually even advised him to save up until he had enough to pay for it, but he ignored you. He bought it on a credit card with 21.9% APR with a 10 year term. It was affordable. They’d pick up the costs if things broke. It seemed sensible, even though he’d be paying thousands of pounds more than it was worth, and thousands of pounds more than he’d have had to pay if he’d have bargained with another credit company, or even if he’d saved up.

Soon, he lost his job and had to downsize. You watched him struggle. Unfortunately, if he defaulted, he’d have legal proceedings to face. He went to the finance company to say ‘take it back’ but they can’t or won’t. They force him to keep paying. In fact, they pass him on to a ‘debt consolidation unit’ who allow him to pay 20% APR over 20 years. It feels less, but it’s much, much more.

But the economy turns for the worse again. Now he can’t afford those payments either. He’s already eating beans on toast every night and now he can’t buy new shoes for his children, so he goes cap in hand to the dole office.

The dole office do this. They see that you’ve got £5,000 saved up. You’ve been putting it aside because you worried something like this would happen. You were saving for your retirement, as you’d been advised to do. You only have debit cards and you never buy anything you can’t pay for outright. You’ve been driving an old banger because you were saving up to buy a new one, and you’ve been making-do and mending as long as you’ve been a grown-up. You do everything right.

The dole office take your £5,000 to pay off some of your neighbour’s new car.

This is in essence what has happened with the health care trusts and the schools. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

This would never be legal on a personal level. You couldn’t just raid your neighbour’s bank account if you were stupid enough to sign up for one of those 1279% APR loans. But this is what the government are doing. Plundering the pockets of the ants who have saved and stored and made-do in order to pay for the shiny atrium in the grasshopper’s house.

It’s so disgusting, I’m personally surprised Bono and Sir Bob aren’t involved in it and we haven’t got Midge Ure trying to get everyone together to raise money and awareness.

And this is what your leaders do whilst you try your best to follow their advice about debt.

“The price tag for repaying PFI firms will reach £8.6 billion next year alone, with the taxpayer owing a total of £121.4 billion on public projects which are worth only £52.9 billion.”

In a way, I don’t blame the organisations like Innisfree who profit from these schemes. I think that they should renegotiate. I think they are unconscionably greedy if they don’t. I think they should do the right and the honest thing. But you can’t blame them for having rock-solid contracts that allow them to double their profits. They’re a business. That’s what businesses do. At least businesses and banks are honest, if not always transparent, in their motivation. Their aim is to make money. Nothing more. Nothing less. They will do so in the ways that make the most, and that means cutting costs, cutting corners, being barely legal. Don’t ever expect more from a business. They are dependable and forthright in their aims. We know what they’re about.

No, it is the government that allowed this to happen. Businesses only exist where there is a need. And businesses should not be above the law and above governance. We’ve got this bizarre system where banks and businesses operate outside the law and are ungovernable. The only way it can work is if they are limited by all governments. For if we don’t limit them in England, they’ll go somewhere like Macau where they can.

But then, who’d want the governments to be in charge of stuff when they’re the idiots who signed us up to this in the first place??! Would we really want these idiots to be in charge of stuff when they can’t see Ponzi schemes for what they are and when they’re too stupid to realise that if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you’re never going to make ends meet. Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of people to rob.

Really, they need me to be in charge and to rip up contracts and say “‘that was a ridiculous, unconscionable deal and we’re not honouring it. You’ve been lucky to have what you’ve had. We’ll pay you 2% above inflation and that’s a good profit. Now fuck off.”

After all, who are they going to complain to?

Don’t bank on a bank

My sister thinks I am anti-England. In a way, she’s right. I love this country but watching politics and banks destroy it is like watching an old friend being ravaged by an entirely preventable disease that, once in motion, cannot be stopped. Negative imagery perhaps. And, no, it’s not just England. All around me, I look at a world damaged by politics and economics and I feel sympathy with Marx that he knew something had to, and must, change.

Politics and politicians are the easy target. They are public. Most people know the name of their president or Prime Minister, and it’s easy to slander them. Some are utterly ridiculous. The posturing, posing, preening and frankly mafiaesque behaviour of Berlusconi; the completely bonkers actions of Qaddafi. Some are not what we thought they would be – Blair take note. A couple of world leaders seem to have their hearts in the right place – Lula is a shining example. Some are bully-boys, like Kim Jong-il. Some inherit, as D. Cameron likes to point out, crazy, corrupt governments. Some try to make it better; many make it worse. But they are public figures and they face the firing line, literally, sometimes – like JFK and Lincoln, or Berlusconi faced by a mad-man. Sometimes they face the firing line in retrospect, judged for their rule, like Saddam Hussein.

We are who we elect. As The Jam said, ‘you choose your leaders and place your trust’ – and then they renege on promises and ideology – maybe because of the situation they inherit. And they face the music. I feel for them, a little. Reading Coriolanus is insightful – Shakespeare’s masses (and his interpretation of Roman masses) reads like politics today. (As an aside, I’ve just seen that Coriolanus is due for release as a film this year… with Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus. Excellent casting.) He said of the public, ‘he who depends on your favours swims with fins of lead’… ‘with every minute you do change a mind’. A noble, fierce, honest yet not publicity-hungry general who does the right thing and totally understands the fickle nature of the masses who care only about their belly and the today, and who is turned upon when he decides to go for government. There’s a story for today.

Yet it’s not these men, with all their hubris – or lack of it – that inspire my wrath. In a way, I pity them. They inherit problems, can’t start afresh, rely on public favour and can only do what they are permitted to do. Sometimes you are the public’s darling; sometimes you face their judgement without doing anything differently. Take pensions. Let’s get some perspective. Pensions have only really existed for 100 years. Much of the world have no access to a pension. I kind of understand the French anger about their pensions, but in reality, five generations ago, pensions didn’t exist. And pensions need sorting. The country has a plughole of money it needs to fill. People must accept something needs to happen to allow pensions in the future. More money is needed or people need to die. Such is the simplicity of the situation. But the public have a short-sighted vision that things that are thus must ever be thus without realising how lucky they are to have a pension in the first place, let alone a lifespan of 67.2 years – the global life expectancy. France is 10th in the world. Its people will live 12.5 years longer than this. Maybe not in good health. Maybe ill every single day. But over 40 years longer than people in many African nations will live. Such is life.

But yes, politicians of the past (and of the present) made mistakes. Trouble is, they’re all too involved in the blame game to say sorry for their part in it. Or for their predecessors part in it. Governments around the world have done horrendous things in the name of governance and in the name of the country. Australian government-sponsored forced adoption of aboriginal peoples… American removal of lands from indigenous tribes… English treatment of the Irish… countries who’ve waged war and fought themselves, making enemies of brothers… Does anyone stand up and say ‘Actually, we SHOULD ensure African life expectancy improves, since the race for colonisation fucked everything up quite royally’ – or ‘Actually, we SHOULD be in Afghanistan, helping out, since we’ve used it as a pawn in the Empire/Super-power game since time immemorial’. No.

So politics is one bad boy.

But, banks are worse. We elect our governments (sometimes) and we elect them from our masses. They are us. They do as we do. We can say ‘no’ to Mugabe and say ‘that’s not right to Idi Amin’ – who starve and subjugate people, remove their land from them.

But we never say no to the banks.

Banks have been around for about 600 years. That’s all. That’s nothing, in the scheme of human lifetimes. The Romans’ rule was slightly less. Chinese dynasties lasted longer. They’ve existed for about the same time as ‘America’ – I say that with tongue in cheek. We still see America as a new country; fresh. It’s a baby in World Domination. In fact, the banks dominate us much more. McDonald’s can’t get into Cuba. Banks can.

Of course, money lenders have existed since way before then, as Jebus tells us. And they weren’t good news either.

The fact is banks rule the world, not governments. I see Icelandic banking collapses worry my parents more than pension changes. My step-dad was concerned about his money in the Irish banking system. One crash can destroy their life together. Banks can remove houses, ruin lives – all on the back of their own dodgy behaviours. They lie, they over-predict, they gloss over, they make bad loans and bad debts and they squeeze the little man.

Let’s face it, the banks caused the Great Depression, not the Government. The banks caused global recession, not the Government. We worry about the euro, but it’s the banks who are more concerning, even the IMF, lending money to countries who are bad-debt risks.

I grew up in the eighties where ‘ethics’ mattered to students opening accounts. You didn’t bank with Barclays because you knew they were involved in excessive debt collecting from African nations – many of whom had seen the debt repayed many times over. (I’m reminded the Germans have just finished paying for the First World War!)And interest rates on loans were impossible for countries to manage. Combinations of corrupt governments and giddy-school-boy banking has meant that the people of the world suffer.

They can be regulated – they are supposed to be. So why do banks still fall apart? It is, after all, an industry and its primary purpose is profit. That’s why they fall apart.

In England, if you put your money in a bank, it doesn’t even belong to you anymore. The American Federal Reserve is a privately-owned company. “The Reserve Banks… are independent, privately owned and locally controlled corporations.”

They, therefore, dictate monetary policy, being independent, TO the US Government, not the other way around. They can introduce Qualitative Easing, not the government. They decide whether to introduce this – and QE is introduced when other things have failed. Colloquially, they print more money. It failed in Japan in the early 2000s. It has many risks. And a privately owned corporation can force this to happen! The Federal Reserve doesn’t have to say who it has guaranteed money to, and although it was forced to say by Bloomberg, it is up for appeal. We may never know where American money goes, who influences it or what is influencing the politics of our world-leading cross-Atlantic bigger, younger sibling.

And that should scare you. Banks dictate economy. Economy drives politics. Politics alter every single aspect of our life – whether it’s what we are reading, what we can say, who we can do business with, how much income we have, our health…

And forgive me for being a little bit concerned that not enough people accept that when they take their pay cheque to the bank, they’re contributing to starvation in some countries, or forced devaluation or inflation.

This is why I have a non-cheque, non-card La Poste account in France. The only money that goes into it is in cheque form. I need a hidey-hole for my other money, I think. I might start investing in guns or bullets for when the end-game is played out ; )

Whilst I end with a bit of a joke about my own paranoia about the bank (and the reality of my part-state-owned account – france is definitely not without its banking problems!!) I have to say we easily forget Lehman Bros, Barings Bank, Nick Leeson, Icelandic banking crises, almost-bankrupt Eurozone countries, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Northern Rock and Great Depressions and other events that have altered the course of history. Banks are not in it to protect our money; they are there to make a profit. And the majority of people who started banks, with all their risks, wanted to make a profit. And so they did.

Lehman Bros was set up in 1850. That’s 158 years of trading. A sniff. And yet it helped set in motion a global disaster that, as one Moroccan market trader said to me ‘has affected the whole world, from Timbuktoo to Alaska’.

I know Lehman Bros suffered a loss in the 9/11 terrorist attack, and I’m reminded of why (apart from ease of target) the World Trade Centre was chosen. It’s such a potent symbol of trade and banking.

Criminal as well as civil prosecutions are underway as to whether banks lied about conditions – whole corporations who are up on trial for causing global financial issues.

The Icelandic banking problems are not yet over and had a knock-on effect all over the world.

National bankruptcy happens.

It happens more than you’d think.

p.s. My money isn’t under my mattress. And if it all goes to pot and collapses, you’re welcome round mine anytime for homemade wine and some homegrown veg. Luckily, Jake’s good at traps and fancies himself as the next Michael Weston from Burn Notice, so we’ll be fairly well-protected. My house is older than all these banking crises.

The Micawber Principle

Micawber’s quote:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six. Result happiness.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six. Result misery.”

How true this seems to be of the world right now. Japan has released a statement saying it is not far from the abyss of unmanageable debt, following Spain, Portugal and Greece (ad infinitum)

My query is: who do they owe this money to? And what happens when a country doesn’t repay its debt? I’m assuming some hard-line bankers who are responsible for global recession are the main lenders who are keeping many countries under the thumb of repayments and that they will not cancel interest repayment. So where does the money come from??! And who do we owe it to?! And what happens if we can’t pay?

Do they send in the bailiffs?

Can you imagine?!

“Come on Japan, open up. You’ve had a red bill 6 months ago, and we’ve sent several reminder letters since then.”

“Come on guys, be reasonable. We can’t pay you. Korea owes us, and I can’t pay you until they pay us. Plus, we thought we had a deal coming through with America, but they went back on the deal. We’ve got old people to support. Who would have thought we’d all live so long? We made a miscalculation with how much we needed to keep the oldies going. Plus, we had an earthquake, and that really set us on the back foot. It’s been nothing but misery.”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ve heard this story before. Everyone’s got a sob story. Now pay up.”

“But I haven’t anything to give you.”

So… you’ve got two options, borrow from some unscrupulous lender, like Zimbabwe or something, who’ll menace you and break your kneecaps if you don’t pay them back, or the lenders will send in the bailiffs to sell off your assets.

Maybe Japan could have a car-boot-style sale and sell off national treasures? I for one would buy Matsumoto Castle if it came onto the market. Perhaps they could start selling stuff on ebay to make up the cash?

I jest, slightly, but Bury Council sold off a Turner to make money. Desperate times call for desperate measures. The problem is, private companies then reap dividends from being able to buy up public property – and capitalism triumphs. Our national treasures are taken away from those who want to see them, and we’re all forced to pay-to-view. The poor man is the loser, as culture is lost to the wealthy.

Someone, somewhere, needs to make the Micawber Principle the global motto, for everyone.

On a sad note, I’m going to stop being a Times online viewer, since they’re now charging for the site’s comments. It’ll be a terrible diet of The Telegraph, FT and the BBC website. I hate this. I like the populist paper. I know I’m a left-wing liberal child, and reading The Telegraph is like a devout Christian reading the works of Aleister Crowley, but I can’t stand The Guardian. I’m just not that kind of left wing liberal.

J’en ai ras le bol #3

Subject of rant: Lloyds TSB collections department.

Before you read, I would like you to know I am up to date with all payments. Just to get that straight…

I’d rung up on Tuesday to report fraudulent use. Google checkout got on to it first, tagged it, sourced it and sorted it. Ijji followed suit. My bank? Couldn’t give a shit. When I phoned them, I was put forward to collections. At the time, I was too bothered by the fact my card had been compromised and then by the fact I needed a replacement, and then by the fact they were so… ‘meh’… about the whole fraud thing.

So… I’d gone in today to question a charge on my account. Basically, I had a charge, they took it out, then charged me again for making the charge. Easy to sort, and the branch are very good at sorting things. Loving the branch. Let’s make that clear. Lloyds TSB Bury and Daubhill, thumbs up.

Not so much the ‘invisible’ powers that be.

I’d gone in to Bury to sort it out. The (sorry, interrupted by a Brummie retard asking if I wanted my grass cutting. What? By a Black Country Smack Head? I think not! I wonder if he’s the one who stole my lawnmower in the first place??!) branch man was lovely, said he’d sort it out. Tried to sort it out. Then ‘referred to collections’ appeared and he was unable to do anything at all. He passed the phone over and called them for me.

1st grievance: entering my details THREE times and then telling them to the Indian Call Centre W-Irker (ICCWI from here on in) again.

ICCWI: Hello, collections. Can I possibly be helping you?

Me: Yes. I’ve been referred to collections and I don’t know why.

ICCWI: Why have you been referred to the collections department?

Me: I don’t know. That’s why I’m calling.

ICCWI: Have you got accounts we need to be collecting from?

Me: No. And why can’t you tell me why I’ve been referred to collections.

ICCWI: Do you know what account you have a collection from?

Me: NO!

ICCWI: Is it from your bank account?

Me: No. I have a good balance on that.

ICCWI: Can I have your card number please?

Me: No. It was used fraudulently and cancelled.

ICCWI: Is it on your credit card?

Me: I don’t have a credit card with you any more

ICCWI: The credit card starting 3770?


ICCWI: Is it the credit card starting 1224?


ICCWI: I can see it’s not on your bank accounts.


ICCWI: I shall refer you to credit card collections.

Me: For F&*k’s sake! I don’t have a credit card with you

ICCWI: Please hold whilst I am passing you on to the credit card collections team


Meanwhile, customers are starting to look at me as if I’m mental.

ICCWI: Please be holding for me whilst I put you through.

ICCWI2: Hello?

ICCWI2: How can I be helping you?

Me: Yes. I’ve been referred to collections and I don’t know why.

ICCWI2: Why have you been referred to the collections department?

Me: I don’t know. That’s why I’m calling.

ICCWI2: Have you got accounts we need to be collecting from?

Me: No. And why can’t you tell me why I’ve been referred to collections?

ICCWI2: Do you know what card you have a collection from?

Me: I don’t have a credit card with you any more

ICCWI2: The credit card starting 3770?


ICCWI2: Is it the credit card starting 1224?


ICCWI2: It says you have a credit card.

Me: I DON’T!

ICCWI2: It says that you do.

Me: What is the balance on the card?

ICCWI2: Nothing. You have no balance. It says the card balance is Nil. It says the card has been cancelled.

Me *starting to wonder if Carol Anne Duffy’s narrator in stealing was talking to an ICCW when s/he said ‘you don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?’*

Me: I know. So why have I been referred to collections?

ICCWI2: I don’t know. I shall make sure you aren’t referred to collections from now on.


Be clear: I’m not blaming this poor guy and his script/his woefully out-of-date computer – I’m blaming Lloyds TSB for outsourcing their collections department here/providing adequate language training/providing adequate computer facilities/providing common sense. This is what Durkheim means by anomie: a workforce unrelated to its products.

ICCWI2: Your account is now fine.

Me: Thank you.

I then re-join the queue in the branch (as it’s not fair to push in, really, is it? Even though I’ve been on the phone for 15 minutes. I kid you not. 8 minutes waiting. 7 minutes talking to imbeciles.

Me: hello, I’ve sorted out my issues with collections. Could you now sort out this double charging for me?

The man messes with his computer for a bit and then says, ‘no… your account has been blocked by collections’

ALL I have to say to this is……

For F$^K’S SAKE!

J’en ai ras le bol #2

It seems some days are just sent to try your patience. This was one of them.

My debit card has been used for a fraudulent purchase. It was used to buy game credits at ijji – so it’s some techno-hacker who likes playing retarded on-line games. I never went to this site before today, but I’m not a happy bunny.

I’m not happy google checkout is so lax. I’m not using them again! They have no protocol (like paypal) to protect buyers, only sellers, so I can’t report a fraudulent transaction directly for them to sort out, like you can with paypal, or set it up as a dispute. I phoned my bank and cancelled my card, grudgingly, since it took them 6 weeks to replace the last card and I was without funds for that time. It’s embarrassing.

In February, when I reported my cards and cancelled them, they told me 3-4 working days. One arrived straight away. The other still hadn’t arrived 14 days later, so I called them and got put through to ‘collections’ *(though they had nothing to collect!)* who then transferred me to the usual number. They said it hadn’t been ordered and they’d place it on order.

2 weeks later, it still wasn’t here. I called again. Apparently it still hadn’t been ordered. They placed it on order. Apparently the branch hadn’t authorised it. Twats.

It arrived after that. I had to cry on the phone to get them to do it though. I had to say I’d been wearing the same clothes for a month, couldn’t afford to wash and couldn’t fill my car up. Truly, I couldn’t MOT or tax my car, or sort out my car insurance. I was without car insurance for 28 days because Directline said they needed a card number, as did every single one of the 17 companies I called. No setting up of direct debits without a card number to start with. And that isn’t a falsehood. If my car had been nicked, I’d have not got a penny.

I put in a complaint. The complaint came back after 3 days to say it hadn’t been upheld because they had no record of either calls when I’d called up and it had been diverted through collections, despite them saying phone calls may be recorded for training purposes etc.

Today, when I called, it went via collections yet again. I have nothing to collect. They are such a bunch of twats.

So… Lloyds TSB, big BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO to you. If I don’t get my card, I’ll be royally pissed off.

Organisations who have pissed me off today:

1. Google checkout

2. Ijji

3. LloydsTSB

Oh, and they can’t give me the money back until it’s been taken, and they can’t stop the transaction. What??! I got a full on lecture about how debit cards have a promise to the seller to protect them and guarantee they’ll receive payment, but this ijji must be complete retards. No-one has my CVV and if they’d tried to use Visa secure payments, they would have found they didn’t know my bank password. Even I didn’t know it. So how are they so lax that they don’t ask for the CVV??!

Paypal don’t get my vote of confidence either, since they were royally hacked back in March. They denied it, but in a forum I go in, there were at least 30 people saying the same thing. The same ‘seller’, the same amounts. If that is a small forum, I hate to think how many other accounts were breached.

And this wasn’t a problem from my computer – I’m safe, I hope. Ish.

I don’t trust the internet for money any more. I don’t trust the banks. I’m going to have a Post Office basic account, and that’s it. I’m going to have a La Poste account, and if I can get by with cash, that’s how I’m going. In fact, I can totally understand why gold is at the highest price it’s ever been. People don’t trust the banks, obviously!

je suis une cynique

I’m just about up to the back teeth with this country. Cheating, lying, swindling politicians, potholes all over, rancid buildings à la ‘1960s USSR’, ridiculous policing that’s more bothered about car speeds than hooligans, gang culture, chavs, the benefits system, “asylum” seekers who give a bad name to those really in need of asylum, story after story of scandal and misbehaviour… and I get a letter from Bolton Council to say they won’t backdate my council tax rebate because ‘ignorance of the rebate isn’t a good enough reason’ for them to back-date it. I’ve paid into the system for all my life. I’ve worked since I was 11. My mother never claimed benefits, even when she could have done. I went to a private school on a scholarship, so I cost the tax payer nothing for my 11-18 education. I have grafted every single day of my adult life. I’ve paid 40% tax at some points in my life. And because I’d rather be self-employed than on incapacity benefit for my bipolar disorder, they’d rather not give me any money. I still haven’t claimed a penny. I still pay council tax. And here I am, eating spaghetti with tinned tomatoes for my lunch because I can’t afford anything better. Spaghetti and a tin of tomatoes will keep me going for 4 lunches for less than £2.00. It disgusts me. I can’t afford to buy washing powder, or bleach, or conditioner for my hair. And yet I have worked every day of my adult life. I worked hard. I didn’t claim benefits even when I could. And because of that, I’m being punished.

Not only that, I can’t open a bank account because I’m self-employed and I’ve only got 1 tax year’s summary because I’ve only submitted one set of accounts. I can’t, therefore, get a job that needs a bank account. I’m still waiting for bank cards that I asked for 14 days ago, and yet my bank harasses me as soon as they think I might go overdrawn. Bankrupts are treated better than this. It’s no wonder people declare themselves bankrupt. I’d be able to open a bank account if I’d just come out of prison, yet I can’t because I’m self-employed. So… those on parole, those who can’t manage their finances, those who are benefits’ hounds, they’re the ones who have privileges. If you’ve got credit, if you use catalogues and have cards, and store cards and HP and loans, then they’ll lend you money. But not me.

I hate this country and how it treats its citizens. It’s all about money. I earn enough to live (just!) and yet I still get slapped for tax and I pay my prescriptions, even though my drugs are cheaper than a prescription price, and I pay to see, because I need glasses, and I pay car tax, even though the roads are full of potholes. And my local council can go cap in hand to the government and get more cash. I can’t. If I can’t pay my bills, the bailiffs come round, not someone from the government with some more cash. I pay more than enough for my bank account, and they, more often than not, are responsible for pushing me over the edge when they slap on fees. £10.00 for 5 pages of bank statements exactly the same as the print-offs I had, but the bank I’m trying to deal with in France only accepts ‘bank’ copies, not mine, and so I pay, even though it probably cost a pound to print and post them. £217.00 to get from here to London on the train. £7.00 return from here to Bury on the bus. RIP-OFF Britain. And I’ve had enough.

It makes me sick.

We’re being constantly spied-on and monitored, and The Matrix is alive and well, people, and we’re living in it!

Today’s news:

terror; strikes; terror & strikes; expenses scandals; Budget reports; Income Tax rises; NI rises; man has heart-attack after yobs bait him; pay rise for MPs & pay freeze for doctors; Falklands’ rows; vanishing species of flowers; birds fall from the sky….

Now, of course, you and I are rational people. We know this is media spin. Bad News makes Good News. Good News makes Bad News. No-one likes to hear about animals being saved, or kind people, or how much we give to charity, but it’s just beginning to get to me. I’m a nihilistic sort of person suffering from anomie. Marx and St Simon were right. I can’t stand all this corporationism and globalization, despite its positives. Yes, I can be in touch with people at the touch of a button. Yes, the internet gives me reading and information and TV and it’s great. What I don’t like is all the negativity.

So… in a way, I’m looking forward to being a bit of a rural terrorist, living off the grid, without gas and a TV line. To some degree, not having a phone would be great too, for business. I’d dearly like to pay only the hospital bills I need to.

I’m just reading:

which asks us what we’d do if our electricity failed. I know, because Steve often forgets to top up the meter until the last minute. I know about living without a fridge – did it at uni. It’s amazing how far you can get without a fridge, and with powdered milk! Not sure how far we’d get without a freezer in France, because I’m planning on freezing a lot of it. Pickling and drying, I guess!! Living without music… a little harder, though you can make your own. Living without light? Candles, fire, early nights. Living without TV. Not so hard at all. Living without the internet? Not so sure.

Maybe this blog is kind of spiritual in the sense of sharing with an unknown world. My words are out there, even if no-one’s reading them.

So… a moneyless existence, by and large. How ridiculous I was thinking of getting a horse, yesterday, because along with my bike, I’d need only public transport for longer journeys. No dependence on the car and on oil and petrol! I could wash my clothes in the bath, like I used to at uni, and barbecue stuff and cook it on the range. I could also read by candlelight, and go to bed with the seasons.

Perhaps, then, I should prepare well for an off-the-grid life. I want to be self-sufficient and cash only. That’d work! Except for the taxes. It’s true what they say about death and taxes, you know!

Paul Weller does a good job here of summing up my feelings!

Anyway, having listened to a bit of Bob Marley, a bit of Jimmy Cliff and some ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight’, I feel a whole lot better!

Les mauvaises herbes

A month in and no buyers. Can it get more nerve-wracking than this?? I really, really need a buyer, now!!

The sale is all going through in France. We’re waiting on one document for the Acte de Vente, and then that’s it. The deed is done. March is the deadline. Nine months from decision to doorkeys. Wow. It’s been a whirlwind!

But we have all the practical things to attend to. I’ve been busily learning French by watching various BBC clips, working through ancient textbooks in the library, translating documents from Le Monde and Paris Match, translating everything I can lay my hand on (and spending endless hours playing sudoku on Le Monde which, strangely, isn’t helping my french at all, but is definitely passing the time) and translating various crime-thriller books from french into English. If only I’d studied so hard for my A level!

Whilst working at clearing out cupboards, I came across my French A level paper. It’s no wonder I got an E. I wrote a poem. In English. Not a very good poem, either. Still, it reassured me that I’m not crap at French, just that I’d had enough of it at A level. We’d had this fabulous French teacher, Miss Mullineaux, for A level, who was like a cross old lady until you knew her, and then she was like your favourite old auntie. She was wonderful. She retired in the second year of my A levels, to be replaced by some randomer who was never there and I managed to get through my A levels having never really read any of the texts. I can’t remember the other french teacher much. I remember my GCSE french teacher had a penchant for wearing her clothes back to front, had a very neat chignon and always reminded me of the nowty french teacher in Malory Towers, the school which I always wished I’d attended. She can’t have been half bad, as I did very well, with little love of her. I think hers was the only subject in which I got an A without a huge girlie pupil-teacher crush on the teacher, or an absolute love of the subject. So all praise goes to her. My first french teacher had been Mrs Short, a welsh lady (who I recall wearing rather raunchy underwear) who seemed ancient, but was probably in her forties. She had a very flimsy blouse collection and was rather buxom. Lucky Mr Short. My first encounters with the language were therefore welsh-pronounced French. Better, then, than my Todmorden-pronounced Latin. I can ‘sall-way-tay poo-elle-eye’ in the best Toddy accent. I’m sure it’s not what Caesar envisaged, but ‘sall-way mag-eest-rah’ should always be said with a Toddy accent, I feel. My only memory of Latin was locking Emma Taylor and Sue Littlewood in the cupboard, where they hid and played recorders, whispering “I am the ghost of Lucius Marcius Memor” (I think!) which we thought was rather amusing, being twelve and realising we could get away with virtually anything. I got 3% in my second-year latin exam. Good stuff! I was surprisingly third from the bottom. I even remember who did worse than me. I think the worst thing was that I wasn’t actually trying to get 3%, unlike my french A level where it seemed like a really good idea to fail miserably, rather than pass miserably.

Hence, my language love has had to be re-seeded. And I’m enjoying it. I picked up South American Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese… so French had kind of got left behind. I know enough to eat out, buy stuff, read stuff… I got by in French life passing fair when I went over to visit my dad or stay in Paris. I even managed a whole four days in a windy, rainy, autumnal Dinard without speaking a word of English (including getting dragged to the casino at 10:30, half drunk, by two lorry drivers who were in town. They weren’t our type of lorry drivers. We discussed why there is no french word for heaven, only ‘paradise’ and ‘sky’ which don’t quite cut the mustard. And we discussed the difference between corsairs and pirates, piracy along the Breton coast, and the nature of romantic fiction – and the drunker I got, the better my french)

So learning it again definitely has its delights. It makes more sense why there’d be ‘le’ or ‘la’ – and it’s mostly predictable; it makes sense to conjugate verbs. But, more than anything, I’m loving the idioms. I like that weeds are known as ‘bad grass’, and that ‘a pot calling a kettle black ‘ is the equivalent of ‘the hospital f&cking the charity’. I like the strange weather idioms, as you can probably tell.

But I’m also loving my own Lancy-shire-ness. I think, in the spirit of our Todmorden latin teacher, I should celebrate the butchering of the English language with accent and dialect. I like that Middleton people say ‘Miggleton’ and ‘kecckle’ for ‘kettle’, and ‘frikened’ for ‘frightened’. I like words like ‘nowty’ and ‘mard’. I like that old story of my mum (from Gloucestershire) coming up North for the first time and being bemused by ‘side the table’.  I’m sad that we don’t have regional languages like the French, with six ‘official’ other languages, like Corsican and Breton. I think we should bring back Cornish, but celebrate dialect. I love being from the north, when I’m down in London. One guy I used to work with used to phone me up just to hear me say the word ‘stuff’, because I say the glottal ‘U’ as it’s meant to be said, like you’ve been punched in the gUts, not ‘a’, making ‘stUff’ into ‘staaff’, which is a very different thing altogether. I like being able to get my tongue around vowels and not marmalise them into other vowels. I like that my ‘bath’ is a ‘bath’ and not a ‘barth’ or even ‘barf’. I like the germanic gruntings of these harsh, basic, ancient words. And I think I shall do my best to celebrate it, though I know deep inside that I shall be softening my accent if I’m teaching English to non-natives, or to non-Northerners. I’m sad about that.

Language has always been interesting to me, not the least as an English teacher. I like that ‘arigato’ has Portuguese origins (which was one of those coincidences to me, that ‘obrigado’ should sound so like ‘arigato’ from two apparently unconnected countries, linguistically) and I like these connections and similarities, as well as the peculiarities. I shall enjoy it very much.

As for Steve, he’ll forget English and not bother with French. He just isn’t filled with Babel passion like I am. I’d definitely be a chatty monkey, whilst he’d be a silent gorilla. Or a lesser-spotted panda, perhaps.

on fait les choux gras

Everything seems to have been such a rush recently – so much seems to have happened in such a short period of time, which makes up for those weeks where we were sitting waiting for the chance to go to France and sort out Chez Blanchard, and whilst we’ve been waiting to sign for Les Capricornes – a name I shall explain later!

First, it was getting my house on the market, with the delightful Home Information Pack. Effing HIPS. Bah. Labour job-creating, money-wasting nonsense. Took ages to complete, then I swapped companies, on pain of small claims courts threats to the original company (does the small claims court still exist, by the way? It seems to have definitely slipped out of vogue!) and then the new company ended up being cheaper, faster and suddenly everything was on the go. House signs were erected, visits were arranged for initial voyeurs, the house was cleared out, my mother hacked some bushes, I vacuumed – and that doesn’t happen very often! – and cleaned the kitchen. More things were boxed up, thanks to my local supermarket’s free wine boxes. When we move in, we’ll look like complete winos, though that is a role we intend to take up only when we’re over there! I’ve labelled everything in a bizarre obsessive-compulsive way, with a ‘theme’ for each wine box, and then sub-categories. Cups and saucers are all wrapped up in newspaper, books are sorted and packed. I have accumulated an inordinate amount of cups and saucers. I like a lovely cup and saucer. Now I sound like my nana, I shall explain. I have my delightful Wedgwood tea set and several beautiful Habitat mugs, a few Whittards’ cups and saucers, and some other beautiful china. I always used to mock my nana’s insistence on a china cup and saucer, when I was in my grunge phase and didn’t care about matching mugs, let alone cups, and heaven forbid a saucer would be used for anything other than putting underneath plant pots! Now, a couple of decades on, it seems like a travesty not to enjoy good tea from a china cup, or a fresh coffee in anything other than a Habitat porcelain mug. And whilst I may be forced to abandon the suits and shoes for a life on a petite fermette, I shall be wandering around in my wellies (more about them later) in a suitably flowery frock drinking tea from a china Wedgwood cup. It is the last bastion of culture, the last bit of ‘Margot’ in my new ‘Barbara’ Good Life. So they’re all packed carefully and ready to go.

But whilst viewings have been frequent, which has been fantastic in a recession, with mixed reports from the papers – the housing market is on the mend, it’s at pre-recession prices, it’s at a standstill, it’s dead, it’s recovering, it’s alive, it’s dead –  ad infinitum – the viewers have been a little odd. I’ve had neighbours knocking on for a look-see with no intention to buy, weird couples, a woman who seems to have married some kind of illegal immigrant half her age who can’t speak English, a good few weirdos who march round the house as if to say ‘is that it?’ and I wonder what they expect. I bought the house on first sight. I loved the staircase, and it was big enough and in my price range. Similarly, Les Capricornes. It was big enough and it was in our price range. It’s roughly where we wanted it to be. It needs work, sure, and it’s not ‘perfect’, but it’ll do. And I wonder what some of these buyers want with £110,000. Do they expect a mansion???! Sure, it’s little, but with the average house price now being a quarter of a million pounds (How did it ever come to that??!) and usual-sized family homes going for half a million, it does make you wonder what they expect.

I have been doing my best with a good ‘sell’ job. Ann Maurice, House Doctors, eat your heart out! I’ve focused on the unique selling points, the quality, the garden, the added features, the fact that the house over the road is on for £20,000 more…. for a foot wider, an ensuite and a smaller master bedroom…. but no nibbles. Not even a little one. Now I wonder if we’ll ever sell, and that in itself brings complications. Pessimism tastes horrible.

Despite this, I’d been over to France to sign the compromis, effectively guaranteeing that Madame will sell and we will buy. 90,000 euros by April. No worries! Now I worry about exchange rates, buyers’ markets, unsellable houses, realistic pricing… And it’s a trauma! Luckily, my fantastic accountant has sorted everything out for me, tax-wise, and my tax bill isn’t too big. That’s one relief.

So it was a wet Thursday morning that my sister Abi took me to Liverpool ‘John Lennon Airport’ (how that must grate upon Mr McCartney’s nerves! Liverpool could at least have named the train station after him… especially after he brought LIPA to them! Can he do no right??!) and a quick Ryanair flight from snowy Britain into snowy France! To give them their due, Ryanair may be like a charabang to Blackpool, but they get you there and they do so without fuss, and mostly on time. And later, they really proved their worth.

Limoges was kissed with snow – and it looked beautiful. I cried a little on the descent, simply because it was so gorgeous, and with a little luck, a small part of it might be mine! Dad picked me up, and as we drove back to St Angeau, it was snowing a little. Then it really started coming down. Dad’s house looked fantastic – like those Christmas ornaments you get of houses with snowy roofs and shutters, lit up. There was a blazing fire and it was toasty warm in there, though it was cold outside. Swamped in a huge sofa, in front of a roaring fire, watching the snow fall outside… it was perfect. We had supper with Brian and Lesley, two of my dad’s fellow villagers, and I realised how relaxed and laid-back everyone is here.

The next day, I took my father to sign the compromis. I like to have my dad about, even if I am 37 and know more french than he does. I don’t think you ever really stop feeling glad you’ve got your parents there, even if you are approaching middle age. Maitre Ferrant was charming as usual, the estate agent, Thibaud, was on holiday in the Dominican Republic, and instead of Mme Roses, I met M. Roses, which was a little surprising, to say the least! Madame arrived, looking very frail and tired, and I realised what a marvel she really was. I really took to her. At one point, I just wanted to say ‘well, we’ll ALL live there!’ She’d come with her two daughters and their respective husbands, and we all crammed into Maitre Ferrant’s tiny office. I have to say it was very convivial, despite the obvious sadness that Madame was giving up her home of 40 years, and they were really wonderful.

M. Ferrant whipped through the reports. We have some asbestos. We have a little lead in the paint on the shutters – not a problem as long as you don’t lick the shutters, he joked. And we have an infestation of capricornes. Lots of capricornes. And some vrillettes. Some kind of insect, he explained. You can treat it with a toxic liquid. No problem. I did want to ask what capricornes were, but I liked to let my mind wander a little. My dad’s a capricorn. So’s Steve, and Dean, our very good friend. My sister is almost a capricorn. I had a vision of a house infested by December’s and January’s children, all being goat-like and capricious together. I understood it was some kind of insect and left it at that, my imagination free to go as wild as it wanted.

It did seem that the French are much more glib than the British about sorting out housing issues. Asbestos? just be careful when you get rid of it. Lead? Don’t injest it. Capricornes. Just kill ’em. Meh. I liked this attitude. No drama. No expensive builders and pest-controllers coming out to suck their breath over their teeth and present you with an enormous bill.

I signed numerous pages, which were then signed by just about everyone else. I realised we’re in a flood zone, but apart from mud slides in 1999, further up in the village, it’s not been a problem. I’m coming from flood-unundated Britain and feeling a little worried about it, but then I remember the house has been there since 1850, and it’s still there.

The energy efficiency document was the most charmingly sad thing about the house. Mine in Manchester is a good B. It’s efficient, warm, double-glazed, insulated and so on. The only advice was to get solar panels (what, are you kidding???! I’ve paid £30 for some nitwit to tell me that solar panels would work in Manchester??! Has he never BEEN to Manchester??!) and the EPC man chortled as he said it, knowing full well it was some government-spin that would be utterly unworkable in Manchester and take 20 years to make up for its initial cost. But Les Capricornes, as I named it there and then on the spot, was an F. Only a G is worse. An F. Poor house! I’m not sure what you have to do to be an F, except be a total waste of energy, but it was quite sad, but quite sweet! Likewise, the same advice adorned the french EPC report about solar panels, and I had to wonder whether some Bruxelles bureaucrat had devised the same piece of advice for all houses, except those A* houses with it installed already. I’ll make that house an A if it kills me to do it! Nothing makes a challenge for a teacher except to see some poor predicted grade for some hard-working delight. I’ll take that F and give you an A, I vowed, silently. The only teacher in the room, I didn’t want to raise suspicions about my mental health.

After that, we went back to Les Capricornes a.k.a The Triangle on account of the shape of the land, to get some further pictures – since French estate agents don’t care for Ann Maurice, thinking ‘if you can’t see the potential yourself, then knob off!’ Ann Maurice wouldn’t be a popular lady in France, on account of the fact that most ‘vielles maisons’ seem to be sold in a complete state of disrepair. Madame’s daughters (in their sixties, no less, just in case you were imagining some youthful french ladies) were just my type. They’d brewed some good strong coffee, got two cakes and were chatty and really friendly. They liked my prenom and kept saying “Emma-Jane!” with delight, though I pointed out that only my grandmother calls me this! We joked about English traffic, and were bewildered by the notion they still held that London is constantly held in a pea-souper of a fog, like Victorian London might have been. I blame Ladybird books. I had the same notion until I was about seven, on account of a Ladybird book about England.

Then Brenda, La Belle-Mere, my father and I took a wander about the snowy grounds. Everything we saw delighted us further. Grapevines. An orchard. A polytunnel. Several sheds. Several lean-tos. A barn I’d forgotten about. A cabin for Jake. A forge!

I hadn’t seen the forge before, and yet when my father pointed it out, you can hear my tone of disbelief on the video I was recording.

“A forge??!”

Steve would love this. He hasn’t yet seen inside, and I know – I just know – that he can’t possibly imagine how wonderful it is yet. A forge. He’ll be made up! A wood-work workshop, a metal-work workshop, a barn, a hangar, a tractor, the land, the vines, the cave, it was all just a little too much to take in.

And yet, when I lay in bed, late that night, tucked up against the snow, I was possessed by a terrible fear. What the hell were we doing??! I know little about farming, except for a couple of weeks in my youth when I visited my maternal family’s smallholding in Stow. Steve and I are city babies, grey through and through. We’re English and we’re city babies, with a confused child who doesn’t know whether to be excited or terrified. Would my house sell? Would we get out of the country alive? It was all a little too much. And yet, that vision of Steve’s face when he sees the forge. It’ll all be worth it! I started to imagine the curtains, the living room, the kitchen I’d have… and it more than made up for the worries and the doubts.

On the day I was due to return, Papa and I set off for Limoges in the dark, not really taking on exactly how much snow had fallen. When we got to the airport, the plane was allegedly still going to land, so Papa dropped me off and I milled about, waiting for the call. It didn’t come. I overheard someone talking about how it had been diverted to Bergerac. I had visions of the time Abi and I were trapped in Cork airport, with 11 other hens, for her hen weekend. We’d been there for 9 hours when Aer Lingus told us the flight had been cancelled because some daft baggage handler had driven the baggage truck into the side of the plane, rendering it unfit for flight. By that time, we were fraught. Or at least, I was. We were put up in a hotel, given sandwiches and told we might be able to get a space on the Monday flight, but if not, the next one would be Wednesday. It was absolutely out of the question, they said, to transfer us to Dublin for a flight, or to replace the plane. One of the girls with us was supposed to be going on holiday, several of them were nurses with shifts to run. North Manchester General would come to a standstill! So I envisaged a cancellation and I waited to hear.

But better than that. Ryanair would transport us to Bergerac and fly from there. I know I was alone in thinking this was jolly good of them, since they could just say ‘oh, bugger off home and try your luck on the next flight that can get in’ but they didn’t. Within an hour, they had three coaches for us, and off we went, down the snowy roads (just having to put the fear that if they can’t land a plane, can you really transport 50 people on a coach out of there???!) across to Bergerac, where we hopped on the plane and were taken back to Liverpool. Lucky I’d chosen ‘John Lennon Airport’ – Manchester was closed. Just out of interest, what would they rename Manchester? “Noel Gallagher Airport?” (Now that would piss Liam off!), The Buzzcocks’ Airport? Mick Hucknall Airport? I’m sure there’s no-one quite as saintly for us.

Steve and Jake were late. Ironically, it took them longer to get from Bury to Liverpool than it took me to get from Bergerac to Liverpool. The snow was pretty bad. Steve was full of a cold. I’ve not often seen him so ill. And yet my excitement was brimming over. He was delighted. I knew he would be.

Now we have the house, the hard work starts, all the worrying begins…. and I’ve still got Christmas to get through!

Il pluit chameaux et chevres

It’s November. It’s still pissing down. Flood warnings. Wind warnings. There’s not been a bright day for what feels like weeks. Misery and torment!

It’s not just the weather that’s pissed on my parade, England-wise; it’s a collection of everything else. Politics, taxes, education, housing, traffic, law…. In short, nothing there’s not a Cabinet position for.

It doesn’t seem long ago that British people were renowned for courtesy and politeness. Now, most people walk around looking at you as if they’d like to do nothing more than spit on you. The traffic is horrendous, and it gets worse, daily. I sit in traffic from 8:50, noticing how people cut out, cut lanes, don’t look. It’s as if cars are protective bubbles in which nothing else matters and utter selfishness is tantamount to good practice. Hence, you don’t stop at a double white-dashed line at a junction, unless the other person (me) on the main carriageway threatens not to slam on and let you in. Then you should let the nose of your car protrude a good foot over the line so as to make your indignation noticed, to make it impossible for any drivers to get past without swerving into oncoming traffic, and thus ensure you get your wish anyway. The white lines are all in the wrong places these days.

And to make it worse, none of the traffic lights seem to be synchronised sensibly. So…. let the flow of traffic stop at lights, to let a minor junction seep three or four cars into the road, then stop everyone at the next set, and so on. I can understand why I get stopped at the KFC junction, to hold us all together, but why, then, as the main ‘flow’ of traffic, do we then end up stopping at Tesco and then the turn-off to Bury? And when I get stopped at the main set on the A666, why, then, do I have to stop again moments after??? Do traffic planners not actually drive or do surveys of where traffic comes from???

So, what with the pulling out, the slow traffic lights, the people who double park, the people who park on double yellows…. the endless pelican crossings and stopping, starting, stopping, starting, the volume of traffic on the roads, the inconsiderate bus drivers who launch out after having stopped for two seconds, the lorry drivers who couldn’t care less about anything smaller than a tank, it pisses me off. Most right royally.

And then I get home to bills – extortionate bills – council tax reminders, gas and electric bills, super-inflated insurance, because nothing’s safe – only to settle down to read a paper, realise we’re being robbed blind by benefit fraud and politicians, that the sentences passed out to criminals are vastly disproportionate to the crime, that the country is plagued by hoodies and mini-terrorists who rule the suburbs, that the banks are frivolous, wasteful, over-paid wide-boys, that the politicians are so out of touch with reality that policy no longer reflects anything useful or relevant, that education is stuck in a rut to improve that it’s been in for at least the last 20 years, that public servants hear the same messages over and over again, and never change…. this is a selfish, selfish country and no mistake.

I don’t think most people are like that. I tend to think that most people are genuine and caring. That they would do as I did when a man had a vet bill for his cat’s euthanasia and pay it for him, that they’d let the knocked-over dog take their place in the queue for the vet, no matter how long it took, that they’d rescue a cat or lend their neighbour a hand. But they don’t. Maybe they’d like to, but they never do. This is the country of the onlooker, where only when it’s too late does someone offer to help. Houses get burgled, cars get stolen, and people watch on. So, if they’re not selfish, they’re petrified.

Yesterday, many hundreds of things pissed me off: the extortionate dentistry costs – £85.00 for a five minute extraction??! – the terrible driving, the double parking, the selfishness of the general populace outside.

People live in a bubble. And I know I’m not the only one to think so. From the supermarket-wanderers who wander aimlessly with trolleys, blocking the aisles with trolleys and aimless, meandering surplus family members, to the people who pull out expecting the world to stop for them, people are blithely unaware of everyone around them. I don’t know how there aren’t more acts of street violence when people just wander so aimlessly and so self-absorbed. Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I expect too much out of politeness and civil behaviour. All I know is that with the country so heavily overcrowded, it’s ten times worse, and it’s time to break free, as Freddie would say!

So… doom, gloom, selfishness, overcrowding…. can I scrape together the money for the house??!