If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Insert joke here ...

From the Beeb:

M1 shut after 'Marmite' lorry crash in South Yorkshire

A large-scale clean-up operation is under way after a tanker carrying more than 20 tonnes of yeast extract overturned on the M1.

The lorry, which was believed to be carrying Marmite, crashed and spilt its contents onto the carriageway at about 22:15 GMT on Monday.
I suppose you like this or you don't. Insert your own joke into the comments.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Another Evening with Lois Pryce

Lois, sitting on a fully-kitted XT550, owned by my mate Alun.

I wrote back in February about going to a talk by the two-wheeled adventure rider Lois Pryce, which was highly enjoyable, and ended up with my getting a wet arse when it rained during the evening, and I had vainly gone out on the XT clad only in jeans and a leather jacket.

Tonight I went to Garlands Motorcycles in my car. Well, it was drizzling, and the XT is freshly serviced, and it was late, and ...

OK, I was lazy.

The talk earlier in the year was about Lois's ride down the Americas from Alaska to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, the subject of her first book, Lois on the Loose. This time it was the second big trip, from London through Africa to Cape Town. I had read the account of this trip, Red Tape and White Knuckles, but it was good to hear all the stories first-hand. I was particularly taken by her account of being ordered to take a train through part of her journey through Congo, because the road to Brazzaville was over-run with bandits. She spent nine hours on a flat-bed railway carriage with her bike, surrounded by wild teenage Congolese soldiers, all drinking whisky and smoking cannabis, and trying to avoid their attentions. It's a truly chilling passage, and she admitted tonight that it was the most terrifying experience of her life, but brushed it off as a life-experience thing ... you know, "every time I have to make a difficult phone call, I think ..." But she's not very big, and she's pretty, and she was totally alone on that train (apart from the soldiers, drunk, stripped to the waist and carrying Kalashnikovs), and I dread to think how that night could have turned out.

If you ever get a chance to listen to Lois, make the effort and go. She's not the most polished speaker (a bit breathless and chatty for a good delivery to a large room), but she's highly entertaining and you will be in awe of her sheer persistence and good humour.

And you'll be thinking if you could possibly get six months off work, because we only live once.

Quote of the Week

Via Canajun, I found this quotation which I thought worth sharing, as it explains something that is hard to put into words. It's from Patrick Symmes' work Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend.
There are moments on a motorcycle when all the glory of motion is distilled into one purposeful package. Chasing curves over a swelling landscape, a motorcycle enters the pure expression of physics and is bound to the road in a way no car will ever know. The rider and machine are literally balanced on the infinitely thin line where centripetal force meets gravity. Despite this state of suspended disaster, the sensation of risk is largely a sensation; the motorcycle is in harmony with the road, and risk comes overwhelmingly from other drivers. Any moment of travel on a motorcycle is a light and essential moment, an agile rebuke to a life conducted in one place. The raw force of the engine is not hidden beneath a hood, but alternately purrs and growls a few inches from the knees, demanding the consciousness of power. Sealed behind glass, insulated by climate control systems and music, the driver of a car knows nothing about the directions of the wind, the lay of sunlight, the small changes in temperature between a peak and a valley, the textured noise of differing asphalts, or the sweet and sour aromas of manured fields or passing pine forests. Engaged in all the senses and elements, balanced in the present tense, a rider on two wheels can taste moments of oneness with the road.
I'm not a fan of Che Guevara, who had a very murky history and does not deserve the adulation given him by the ignorant and naive. And I haven't read the book, so I don't know what Symmes' take on his 'hero' is. But that passage says something that resonates with me.

Friday 25 November 2011

Pink Elephants

Anna sent me this, and it's too good not to share. A prize* if you can get through it without laughing.

* Your name inscribed in gold-effect magic marker on the Nowhere Towers Honour Board of Humourless Twats.

Boxing Clever

Glossary for the uninitiated:

Topbox: a plastic box mounted to the rear of a motorcycle, behind the seat. Varies in size from tiny to huge. Possibly the ugliest accessory one could ever fit to a bike, but the sheer utility dwarfs all other considerations. Shopping, commuting, leaving your kit with the bike when you want to walk around- a topbox makes all that easy, and is both secure and waterproof. Beats rucksacks or bungeeing stuff on by a country mile. Most are detachable, so you can leave them off if you don't need them that day.

Givi: Italian makers of high quality motorcycle luggage. Best quality is the Monokey range, which is double-skinned and very robust, but very expensive. More affordable is the Monolock range, which is sold as suitable for scooters and light bikes, and is equivalent to the Monokey range built lighter. Both share the same excellent one-key, one-handed locking and latching system, which is an icon of simplicity and good design. I have had a lot of Givi stuff over the years, and I haven't regretted buying any of it.

Oxford: British maker of middle-market motorcycle gear (luggage, clothing and accessories). Reliable stuff that won't break the bank, and that's it.

I hope you've got all that. There will be questions at the end.

When I bought the Sprint back in July, it came with a tiny little Givi topbox. Only 26 litres, it looked a bit like a large sandwich box and, frankly, a bit daft on the back of the sleek and muscly Sprint. But it was big enough for my work bag and also for my helmet, provided I didn't want to store a packet of Rizlas in there as well. So I kept it on there, at least while I was commuting on the big red thing.

When I was in the middle of negotiations over the change-over price of the Sprint against the Bonnie, I was offered a 44 litre Oxford topbox for half-price as an additional sweetener, as I had mentioned the pathetic size of the Givi box as a negative in the deal. I took the dealer up on that, as I knew the box on the XT (a horrible, cheap eBay special) was on its last legs. I fitted it to the XT and used it for commuting until this week. It's good enough, it holds two helmets and a lot of shopping, and it looks decent. But at the back of my mind was a niggle. The mounting plates for the two boxes are different, and they are not interchangeable. It's more-or-less definite that daughter No. 2 will be coming with me on a continental trip next year (the ostensible reason for changing the Bonnie for the Sprint), and that little Givi box was just not going to be enough.

Shoes, amongst other things, if you must know.

What I needed was a larger Givi Monolock box to go with the little one. Last week, I sold the wonderful Hepco and Becker panniers for a good price, so with some money sloshing around in my Paypal balance I pulled the trigger on a Monolock box of 47 litres. That's about as big as I am prepared to go. Today, I fitted the baseplate for the new box onto the XT after taking the Oxford one off. So now I have two bikes, fast and slow, and two topboxes, large and small, and each will fit on either bike. So I can have the little one on the XT for the commute and the large on the Sprint for touring:

Or the large one on the XT for shopping and the small on the Sprint for sandwiches/first aid/toolkit for a day ride:


The Oxford box is now on eBay and has two watchers already. As I got it for half-price, I might even make my money back. Out of the money raised by the sale of the H&Bs, I have been able to afford a pair of throw-over panniers as well. I'm hoping these will arrive tomorrow. Nothing can beat hard luggage for convenience and durability, but for something I will probably only use a couple of times a year I think it's a good compromise.

I got the XT serviced, too, and that's running like a happy little motorbike now, so it's been a good couple of days.

Must paint that garage door ...

Change and Decay, In All Around I See

From this week, bin collections have been changed from Tuesday to Friday.

This is going to take a while to bed in. After 20 years, my body clock (in 'weekly' mode) had just about got used to Tuesday.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Foggin' Stupid

I was commenting on a fine rant over at MajorGav's PetrolBlog where he rails against the use of fog lights when it isn't foggy (an amusing and timely article) when I realised that I had banged on so much in my comment that I had virtually written a new blogpost. So, with necessary amendments, here it is:


It's that time of year again, when both morning and evening commutes are in the dark, the weather is turning wet and chilly, and the road surfaces are getting trickier. I'd like to say a word to all car and van drivers on behalf of motorcyclists. Please, please, please make sure your headlights are adjusted properly and don't use fog lights, either front or rear, unless absolutely necessary. I know that some of you have them angled forward and call them 'driving lights' (what else would they be? Knitting lights?) but the result is the same.

We - bikers - don't have windscreen wipers, and what for you is a hard glass windscreen is, for us, a bit of soft plastic that scratches almost without touching - and costs 30 or 40 quid a pop to replace. Proper rain, paradoxically, is OK, as the water beads up and is blown off as long as you keep up a decent speed. But light rain or, worse, mist leaves a coating of cloudy droplets on your visor and cuts both visual penetration and contrast. Double that, treble that, if you have followed a lorry or bus which is sucking up a mist of road muck in its wake. 100 yards is enough. Bad enough when wet, but then it dries opaque.

Add an unlit road, and an approaching car with main beams on (or squinty dipped beams, or macho 'fog' lights) and you are literally riding into a black hole. You can see nothing, not the edge of the road, nor the surface, nor if there are any pedestrians tucked away in the shadows. The only answer is to pile on the brakes, slow down to a crawl and hope for the best.

The blazing rear fog light when it isn't foggy has the same effect (although the red is easier to deal with, and it's 21W x 2 rather than 60W x 4). In proper fog, a life-saver; in light rain or clear conditions a painful and annoying added hazard. But they are 'safety features', so it's OK to leave them on, right?

One thing about misused rear foglights that MajorGav didn't mention is the brake reflex on busy roads and motorways. You get attuned to the brightness level of everyone's rear lights, and when you see a much brighter one you assume someone up ahead is braking. You look, you react, and are ready to brake. When some muppet with a fog light on is up ahead, you keep seeing this between the other cars and the brain keeps twitching the brake reflex. That's annoying enough (the brain constantly going onto high alert for nothing) but it's also dangerous - after a while you become acclimatised, and then when somebody does brake in a genuine emergency, you just think "oh, it's that twat with the fog light again" and fail to react. Cue massive pile-up when nobody reacts in time.

Please just remember the Highway Code, Section 226:
You MUST use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet). You may also use front or rear fog lights but you MUST switch them off when visibility improves.
It's not difficult: switch them on when the fog makes it hard to see, and switch them off when visibility gets better. Everybody's happy.

And having four lights at the front does not make your car go faster, or give you a bigger willy.


To my American friends ...

A very Happy Thanksgiving ...

And may all your turkeys be single-term ones ...

Wednesday 23 November 2011

More on swearing

Last night, I wrote a post about the rights and wrongs of swearing, and I have had some interesting and thoughful responses. I ran out of time (and didn't want the post to be over-long), so I kept some things back for a later post. Tonight is quieter, so I'm back on the topic. Two anecdotes, both perfectly true and from my own experience, which amused me greatly at the time and which I hope will provide a small distraction for my readers, although any great further insight into the difficulties of the topic is vanishingly unlikely.

1. Leeds, 1972

I was working in the summer as a hospital porter in St James's Hospital. My first proper, paid job and, curiously, one that I would happily go back to if circumstances decreed it. I was part of a portering team of about ten men, all much older than me and, on average, rough as fuck. I loved it.

One was called Ray, a gentle six-foot Yugoslav with a massive frame and huge, sad, cavernous eyes. He had come to England during the war as a refugee, I think, and on his arrival spoke no English. He immediately got a job in the hospital and learned his English there - amongst the portering team. Bad mistake. He swore like a sailor on shore leave, but there was no logic to it.
Hey, fucking you lend me that trolley, bloody.
I not coming fuck to work tomorrow bastard am I?
I liked the guy and we had many long conversations on the long night shifts, and gradually I worked out what had happened. He had picked up the meaning of most English words and could use them successfully. But he had also picked up that there were some words - perhaps 8 to 10 - which were essential to meaningful speech (at least as far as he heard it) but which appeared to have no semantic content whatsoever. I reckoned he worked on a quota system - shovel them in at random points in the sentence, and if there weren't enough, take a few on the end.

Looked at logically, from a language-learner's point of view, this is completely reasonable. Here we have some words that carry meaning and people understand, and here we have other words that seem to have no actual meaning (OK, what does the 'fucking' in 'fucking hell' actually mean?) but which everyone uses with great regularity. What to do, but put them in with the approximately correct frequency and hope for the best? Oops, I didn't use enough this time, fucking.

2. Hull, 1983

Teaching English in a very rough comprehensive, in the shadow of Hull Prison. Parents' Evenings were a quiet affair, as 90% of them never came within a mile of the school gates. But one night Darren told me that his parents were coming in to see me. Oh good, I thought, perhaps I can have a quiet word about Darren's language. Darren was 13 or so, and swore enough to make a docker blush. Nice lad, rough diamond, etc. His parents come along at the appointed time and were equally pleasant, not quite forelock-tugging, but certainly a little deferential, which was a rare treat.

I told them about his work and what progress he was making, and as they were about to leave I told them there was something else I wanted to mention. His swearing. Now it's OK, not a big problem, boys will be boys and all that, but he does it quite a lot, and at the most inappropriate times. He'll find it a problem when he starts going for jobs and so on. Can you ... er ... have a word?

The response was muted. The mother looked embarrassed, and the father crestfallen. "We know he does it, but we're decent people and we don't know where he gets it from. I mean, if I ever hear him swearing at home I fucking belt the little fucker, but he never seems to learn."

He caught her eye, they both caught mine, and we all laughed for a good five minutes.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

Chomsky's famous sentence, published in his Syntactic Structures in 1957, which shows that a human utterance can be both completely nonsensical and grammatically correct at the same time. In other words, syntax and semantics are distinct and separate. It's part of a much larger and highly technical debate about the nature of language and our human capacity for communication, but I am not going into that here, because it is late.

I came across the sentence while studying linguistics in the 70s, and it has occupied a small and dusty crevice in my brain ever since. I was reminded of it while looking through Wikipedia for something related to a comment I was making on another site, which contained a reference to it, and I was drawn into reading the whole article.

Over the years, there have been several (usually unsuccessful) attempts to cast the five words into a sentence that would give them genuine meaning, but of course it is very difficult - impossible, in fact, unless one uses the words metaphorically. Stanford University held a literary competition in 1985, in which contestants had 100 words or 14 lines of poetry to make it meaningful. One entry, which may not have been the winner but should have been if it wasn't, was from one C M Street. I found it utterly charming and uplifting.

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Public profanity

This post contains swear words. Be warned.

I'm very ambivalent about swearing. On the one hand, I do it all the time: the amount and the severity depends on whom I am with, from merely the thumb/hammer thing when in extremis, right up to potty-mouthery with certain characters at work, who wouldn't understand a word I said without regular interjections of oaths and curses. On the other hand, I was brought up not to do it, and I feel slightly cheapened whenever I find myself cursing. I suppose that's the point: swearing is intentionally transgressive, but in a harmless way, so from letting off steam to emphasising one's point in an argument it's a handy tool in the linguistic locker. I try to limit swearing on this blog to times when nothing else will do, as I simply don't know who might be reading it, and I have no desire to offend anyone unintentionally. But I don't buy the old headmaster's line that swearing is evidence of a poor vocabulary. A heartfelt utterance, laced with some ripe profanities, can be very expressive and also extremely funny.

I have no problem with swearing when it's done amongst people one knows will not be offended, although the degree will change with the audience. But I have to say that I find swearing as it is practised in 2011 - i.e. mouthing off like a docker no matter who is within earshot - pretty uncomfortable. The other day I walked by a car in a supermarket car-park, which had a sticker in the rear window saying (in a very jocular script) "Shit Happens". My first reaction was one of despair - it's such a banal thing to say, and I imagine is what passes for philosophy in the minds of some people. And the child seat in the back of the car made me depressed too. And then I wondered how I would have felt if my late mother has been with me. She wasn't a prude by any means, but she was a decent person and seeing that would have made her day that little bit worse. That's quite a mild example. I saw a youngish man the other day in town with a t-shirt that said, baldly, "Fuck You". I wouldn't be likely to approach him to ask the time, that's for sure. And perhaps that was his point.

Maybe he was a nice guy, and he wore the shirt as a joke. But that, in a way, is even more depressing. If I spoke to him and said that I found his t-shirt hostile and unpleasant, it's likely he wouldn't have a clue what I was on about. I should lighten up, learn to take a joke, perhaps even learn to let people 'express themselves'. I'm glad that we are a freer and less uptight society than we were in the 1950s, but people shouldn't confuse civility with deference, or good manners with emotional frigidity.

I was prompted to write this by an article in the BBC online magazine, entitled "Should swearing be against the law?" It's quite a good one, and delighted me because one of the commenters used the word 'phatic', which was an unexpected treat.

The problem with swearing is that it is highly dependent on context. What is said by a friend while chewing the fat over a pint can become very hostile, even threatening, when said by a stranger. And people don't like to feel threatened by strangers. It spoils your day.

It seems that people no longer realise, or even care, how their actions affect those around them. This issue of public swearing is only one example.

Monday 21 November 2011

Hell, and a Rigby

"Durr, whut?" comment of the week comes from a Mr Rigby, who was stranded at Heathrow Airport due to the fog which persisted there all day.
Matt Rigby, from London, spent the day at Heathrow having seen his midday flight to Moscow delayed and then cancelled.

[He] said: "We weren't even told it was due to fog, but I was able to figure it our for myself because it was pretty foggy out there."
He can probably tell you whether it is day or night without looking at his watch, you know.

Formatting Horribleness

An apology. When I post from work (as with the previous post), I am in a strange limbo, half-in and half-out of Blogger. I can sign in and create a new post, but as soon as it is published I am presented with the sign-in screen again. I can't comment here or anywhere else under my own identity, and I can't edit my own posts. In this limbo, Blogger takes liberties with my formatting (about which I am usually quite careful, as I like to keep the blog looking clean), putting several paragraph breaks on one side of a quote and none on the other, and line breaks in the middle of lines where there shouldn't be any at all. Worse, I can't get back in to edit or correct any of it. The infelicities have to stay until I get home and can access the blog on my regular machine (modest though it is) to put them right.

So if you see a post on here with odd formatting and lots of stupid errors, please accept my humblest, and I will be tidying them up later.

If I am awake.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Upholding Standrads of Litersy

From the BBC's online coverage of the results of the Spanish elections, i.e. after the polls ...
Are you in Spain? Are you be voting? How do you intend to vote? What are the key issues for you? Send us your comments using the form below.
Great copy-editing. And is it just me, or are these requests for 'your views' getting more common? Almost every story on the BBC website has this at the bottom. It seems like lazy journalism to me, or an over-reliance on the opinions of 'ordinary people'. If I want the opinions of ordinary people I will go to the pub - that is not what the BBC is for.

But it's a more general malaise within the Corporation. By the time a story has its quota of vox-pops from 'real people' and its 'correct' interpretation by BBC 'experts', there seems rarely to be time for the people involved to say their piece. The real news - the people involved speaking in their own words - takes a back seat.

Ask yourself - when did you last see an interview where the person just spoke their piece, or a story where the facts were laid out, without either a) Nick Robinson popping up to tell us what is really going on, or b) some Person on the Clapham Omnibus being asked what they think of it all?

5% story, 95% commentary - and half of that ignorant and half politically-biased. The BBC is an old warhorse that needs putting gently to sleep. It's lost its mission and its integrity.

"Are you be voting?"

No, I baint.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Beautiful Numbers

I hated maths at school. I think my brain wasn't ready for it, but the sheer abstractness of it put me off. I was bright enough to survive it, but I didn't love it. Now, of course, I think it is brilliant. I can't fill the car or bike without spending the next ten miles working out in my head the mpg figure from the miles recorded and litres put in. My mathematical understanding is at a very basic level, of course - arithmetic, algebra, 2D geometry, a bit of statistics, a bit of calculus - but I suspect it is better than most, and these days I find the subject both intriguing and compelling. (If it tickles you too, have a look at a book called Nature's Numbers by Ian Stewart, where he delves into the maths behind all kinds of natural phenomena from dripping taps to the arrangement of cells in a sunflower head. Amazing book.)

I was therefore mildly thrilled to find this clip over at Rosie's place. It's a series of 15 unconnected pendulums (OK, Latin scholars, pendula) with monotonically-increasing lengths. (I looked this up and the explanation was way beyond my comprehension, but I suspect if the lengths were metal bars instead of pendula, there would be a musical relationship between them. Maths and music are intertwined. But that's a guess.)

"The period of one complete cycle of the dance is 60 seconds. The length of the longest pendulum has been adjusted so that it executes 51 oscillations in this 60 second period. The length of each successive shorter pendulum is carefully adjusted so that it executes one additional oscillation in this period. Thus, the 15th pendulum (shortest) undergoes 65 oscillations."

Set them going, and watch the patterns. Absolutely beautiful.

Friday 18 November 2011

Farage: "What gives you the right?"

While I quite like Nigel Farage, I sometimes wish that the anti-EU movement had picked someone less like a golf-club lawyer. He can sometimes come across as a bit glib and superficial. But this one (h/t to Guido) is a stormer.

"What gives you the right?" indeed.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Memo to Self

Richard, when you go out to eat, take your reading specs. You really can't do without them any more, especially in dim light and with a fancy foodie script on the menu.

All that shit about "my eyesight's fine, it's just that my arms aren't long enough, ho ho" doesn't wash any more.

Ordering the wrong thing because you can't be arsed to carry them with you would be silly, wouldn't it? And relying on your companion (who remembered hers, women, eh?) because "my God, the light in here is very poor" is neither manly nor exciting.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Ring of Kerry

We fully anticipated a day of driving rain and bitter cold, this being the Atlantic coast and mid-November. Instead, we had balmy weather and, if not bright sunshine, then at least high cloud and good light.

From the island of Valentia, looking seawards ...

About 8 miles out are the rocky outcrops of Skellig Beag and Skellig Michael, the latter the home to some very hardy monks between the 6th and 12th Centuries. There was a lot of sea mist. To the eye, this meant that the islands were distinct but black silhouettes, appearing to float eerily above the surface of the sea. Unfortunately, cheap Samsung optics were not able to capture this adequately, but you can see them if you squint ...

Protecting one of the passes since 1994 was Our Lady Of Grace Coomanaspig, who had a small receptacle for offerings ...

... but it would be more in hope than expectation, I think ...

Another breath-taking panoramic view among hundreds ...

... and another ...

The lakes in Killarney National Park, as the light was fading in the late afternoon ...

... and the day was drawing to a close ...

The weather was unreasonably kind, and we had a very satisfactory day. Not only was it mild and dry, but being mid-November we more or less had it to ourselves. I can imagine in Summer it could be appalling, as many of the roads are barely wide enough for a single car, never mind a coach tour, and apparently it gets packed, but for us it was a beautiful and uplifting place.

Tomorrow, the lakes again in good light, and a trip round the South-West corner to end up in Kinsale. The forecast, not unreasonably, is for lots of rain.

Bring it on - we have the kit, and haven't worn it yet.

Monday 14 November 2011

Clifden Farmhouse

I'm not going to bore you with every B&B I have stayed in on this trip, and every meal I have photographed before eating, but I want to post a recommendation for the first B&B we stayed in after we left Dublin, as the experience was really special:

Clifden Farmhouse
Hospital Road
Clifden, Co. Galway
00 353 (0) 95 21263

It's situated on a hill on the edge of the town, about 10 minutes' walk from the fleshpots of Clifden, as part of a working farm. That means it isn't pretty-pretty, but the views are spectacular. Here's the view one way ...

... and here's the other ...

Don't expect IKEA furniture and Laura Ashley curtains. It's clean and modern, but far from trendy. Just how I like it, in fact. Everything worked*, the bed was comfy, and the 'Full Irish' breakfast (same as a Full English, but further West) was an all-dayer. Best of all, the welcome was friendly, genuine and fulsome. I had phoned the owner, Mrs Coyne, the day before to book, but by the time we got there she had wisely decamped to Lanzarote for a well-earned break, leaving the operation in the charge of her daughters.

In the hospitality trade, there is a fine balance to be drawn between over-familiarity on the one hand and over-formality or, worse, unctuousness on the other. I'd rather be called 'mate' than 'Sir', I suppose, but rather than either of those I like to be greeted with polite but genuine friendliness. As if I matter, but not too much. The girls managing the B&B delivered this in spades, and we left with genuine regret.

I mentioned to Mairead that I wrote a blog with a mainly motorcycling audience, and asked if they had any objection to motorcyclists as guests. Not at all, not at all, was the response, so I asked if they minded if I gave a recommendation to any bikers touring the area. They said they were happy with that.

So, if you are touring the West Coast of Ireland and need somewhere to stay in the area NW of Galway, you would not be disappointed if you stayed here. Fabulous, remote and beautiful scenery, and a great place to lay your head and let the bike cool down a bit.

We'll be visiting the area again, and where we will stay is a no-brainer.

*I'm lying again. I couldn't get the iPhone or the lapdog to connect to the free wi-fi, although this has not been a problem elsewhere. However, since one of the brothers set up all the IT in the house and it works for everyone else, I'm sure this is something that could be resolved if it really mattered. For me, it didn't matter enough to make a fuss about.

Some Views of Ireland 2

Some stunning scenery, making me wish I had brought my Nikon DSLR. I'm having to make do with the iPhone (rubbish) and a finders-keepers Samsung P1000, worth about £20 if it was working properly, which it isn't. So any moody, muted colours and creative soft-focus shooting are not down to any talent of mine, but crap optics.

We drove from Dublin to Galway and then up a long and challenging road across some wonderfully remote bog and moorland to Clifden. I was happy on that road up to about 50 mph, but the White Van Man behind clearly wasn't, so I pulled off into a layby to let him through, nearly wrecking the front suspension on two huge concealed potholes in the process. The mountains were starting to close in.

The many small loughs here often have little islands in the middle, often with ruined buildings hidden in the scrub, and I had a pleasant fantasy involving a lottery win and complete retirement from the human race.

That evening, Anna expressed (or, rather, re-expressed for the ninetieth time) her desire to see the sun go down over Galway Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. This, and the shortened day, was the reason we took the motorway from Dublin rather than the pretty and winding option. However, a good look at the map persuaded us that this was not possible - not without a 30-mile walk, anyway - but we set off for an evening stroll in any case, just as the light was fading. For one thing, we found that Irish estate agents had not lost their sense of humour ...

... and that the Irish are protective of people's rights to walk a pretty walk without getting mown down by cars (the sign advising of a €150 fine for dog mess wasn't quite so photogenic) ...

We ended the walk with this view, the nearest we got to a Galway Bay Sunset. It was good enough.

Tomorrow will see us driving the Ring Of Kerry, and more moody, out-of-focus photo-opportunities, so keep checking back. This B&B has awesome wi-fi. The router is literally a foot from the bedroom door, and it's waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than what we have at home.

I think I'd rather just be a Baroness, thanks all the same...

If this is what they call you in Ireland...

Some Views of Ireland

A walk in the pouring rain around Rush Harbour ...

Down soaking wet streets to the Harbour Bar ...

And a pint in front of the fire.

Alfie (11 years) and Dot (5 months) ...

Window display at Connemara Tweeds, Clifden ...

Detail -

No wonder polar bears are the poster children for the greenies. I had to forcibly stop Anna from breaking in and stealing them.

Saturday 12 November 2011


Funnily enough, I had to go to the Irish Times for this gem. Angela Merkel, in an interview after the Cannes summit:
"What we got in Cannes was the feeling that there is no such thing any more as domestic policy making. Domestic is what's inside the currency area. Greece can no longer decide all by itself the issue of whether it should hold a referendum or not."
So now you know.

Friday 11 November 2011

Irish spelling

Always baffling.

For all its apparent difficulty to English eyes, Welsh spelling is pretty logical, and the pronunciation is directly related to the letters you see. It's almost 100% phonetic, and far more so than English, for example.

Irish spelling - nope. To someone not brought up there, the relation between spelling and pronunciation is often almost comically indirect. I have been collecting a few examples for the amusement and edification of chums, but last night I saw one that takes not only the biscuit, but the whole McVities factory.

Cill Chomhghaill



You could never have guessed that. Unless you were Irish, of course.

Stena Plus

A recommendation for you, if you are ever crossing between Fishguard and Rosslare on the Stena Line ferry: pay the extra and travel Stena Plus. For an extra 16 quids per person per crossing, you get:
  • Access to a quiet lounge
  • Comfy chairs (those aircraft-type things, but also proper armchairs)
  • Free red or white wine, soft drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate etc
  • Free pastries, nibbles, fruit, etc
  • A steward to look after you
  • A restaurant in the quiet area so you can eat in peace and quiet
  • Papers, TV and free internet and wi-fi
  • (cough) A slightly more exclusive class of fellow-traveller.
You turn up, you are greeted and treated as a human being, couple of glasses of wine, you can rest or sleep, you can fill up on biscuits and cakes, and read the papers or watch TV or surf the net until you arrive. For £16 a head it is a complete bargain. The Ireland ferry has a reputation for being a drinkers' special, and this way you avoid all that.

We have done this for the last two crossings, and have decided that we will never travel any other way. Highly recommended.

Thursday 10 November 2011

A Bike A Day

Helps You Work, Rest and Play.

Here's a challenge thrown out by Trobairitz:
If you had unlimited funds and could have one bike for every day of the week, what bikes would you choose?
OK, after some thought (about ten seconds' worth), here is my selection.

1. Yamaha XT600E

All-purpose commuter/trailie. Old enough to be easily fixed on the driveway, and also old enough not to grieve the owner if it's dropped or (God forbid) stolen. 55 mpg and will keep going through anything. A post-holocaust bike. Also cheap. Of the seven, this is the one that would get ridden every day.

2. Triumph Sprint ST 955i

Yes, my other bike, which only goes to show that I am happy with my choices. So far. Comfortable for long rides, handles well enough, can take pillions and luggage. 150 mph performance is substantially in excess of anything I would ever use, but that's a comforting thought in itself. But best of all, that triple motor - torque in massive gobs from idle to redline, and that howl when it gets on the cam ...

3. Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster

For sunny days when I don't need to be anywhere in a hurry. I've never really 'got' the cruiser thing, but it would be a shame not to dip a toe in. I'd have the standard model with the centre controls, though - my back wouldn't stand the feet-forward position of the Custom, and I don't get that whole splayed-out thing.

4. Yamaha XT660Z Tenere

The modern version of (1), with a bulletproof 660 water-cooled single motor and a small screen. This is for 'adventure touring', by which I mean anything off the beaten track. These bikes have circled the world and been up the Himalayas, and seem to be, if anything, tougher than the 600 they replaced. I had the 660R briefly (the trailbike version) and the motor is just about enough. Fit it with huge panniers and strap a tent on the back, and off you go.

5. Moto Guzzi T3

A big, lazy 850 from the 70s, here to indulge my love of Italian bikes and retro at the same time. Not fast, but lazy and long-legged (the Italian nickname is Gambalunga), and an addictive vibe. But not, in any sane world, one's only bike.

6. BSA B30 rigid

My 'classic', and something to fettle when the other bikes are all running well. A true Brit.

7. Suzuki GSXR1000

Insanely fast. Just for the giggles. I would probably sell it after three months and indulge my love of strokers with a Yamaha RD350LC, which would be about as practical and twice the fun, but everyone needs to own a Gixxer at least once. Perhaps.

Ask again in a week's time. I will have changed my mind. Probably.

All pictures nicked shamelessly from the web.

Wednesday 9 November 2011


The house refurbishment that has been dominating our lives for the last eight weeks is now almost over. Everything now works as it should. The windows wind, the kitchen kitches, the heating heats, the bathroom baths, and the hot water pipes pipe hot water. All we have to do now is move everything from its random and chaotic distribution round the few unaffected parts of the house and we will be back to normal. No workmen, no Radio Fucking One, no endless coffee-making (sixty-three sugars, love!), no dog getting covered in paint and no cat cowering in the woodstore.




If we still smoked, we'd be sharing a cigarette.

Tomorrow, we go to Ireland for a few days. Play nicely.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The ATTAM* Party

*All Things To All Men

So, the Labour Shadow Cabinet is full of policy wonks, people who have never held down a real job in their lives. And the Conservative Cabinet is much the same, albeit slightly more encouraging with a few Directorships. So, how is the party that will promise anything to anybody faring?

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister
Aid co-ordinator
European Commission
Policy adviser

Vince Cable, Business Secretary
Special adviser
Chief Economist for Shell

Chris Huhne, Energy and Climate Change
City entrepreneur
Director of ratings agency

Danny Alexander, Treasury Secretary
Press Officer
Director of Communications, Britain In Europe

Bit too much Europe there for my liking.

Time was, Parliament was full of ex-miners on one side and ex-businessmen on the other. Yes, I exaggerate. But you knew that Parliament was filled with men (and some women) with experience of life - struggling to feed a family, hard physical work, taking risks, balancing priorities, managing money. Looking back over these three posts, the most common occupation is 'policy adviser' or 'political researcher'. Overwhelmingly, politicians leave University, get a job at a low level in a political organisation, and rise to the top of that before being selected (for their loyalty to the cause more than anything else, one would imagine) as candidates for election. The only risk there people have taken was whether to support Brown of Blair on their way up.

It is no surprise that Parliament is spineless and weak (unless it is to bully and coerce its citizens into 'appropriate choices'). They have all lived in a world where what matters is who you butter up and who you spin against, a comfy office world where risks are theoretical and discomfort is a Nokia between the shoulderblades.

No-one there who has queued for the bus before dawn on a misty November morning to earn their daily crust. Pampered lapdogs, the lot of them. Even, or especially, Labour.

The Toffs' Party

As with the recent look at Labour's real-world experience, here's the same for some of the Conservative cabinet:

David Cameron, Prime Minister
Political researcher
Special adviser
Director of media company

William Hague, Foreign Secretary
Management consultant

George Osborne, Chancellor
Political researcher

Kenneth Clarke, Justice Secretary

Theresa May, Home Secretary
Bank of England
Financial consultant

Phillip Hammond, Defence Secretary
Director of medical company
Various directorships and partnerships
Consultant to World Bank

Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions
Scots Guards
General Electric Company

Andrew Lansley, Health Secretary
Civil servant
Political researcher

Michael Gove, Education Secretary

Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government
Local councillor

Justine Greening, Transport Secretary

Better, but still nothing to give confidence that our Lords and Masters have lived much in the real world.

Monday 7 November 2011

RoSPA response

I posted recently about the horrific M5 crash, in which I criticised RoSPA for a bit of apparent shroud-waving in the aftermath of the events. It seems that RoSPA have been trawling the blogosphere for criticism of their stance (now why would they do that?) and are doing a bit of damage-limitation. Today, I received an email from Jo Bullock, their Head of Press and Campaigns, which gives the background to the interview I saw. It is certainly an eye-opener, and I am happy to publish it here in full. It seems as if the agenda was the BBC's, not RoSPA's (no surprises there), and that the interview that I saw was a highly-edited extract of a much bigger corpus of material. Here's what she wrote:
Hi Going Fast, Getting Nowhere

Further to some of the points made on your blog, I wanted to fill you in on the background to media coverage related to the horrific accident on Friday.

The pre-recorded clip shown by the BBC was only a very small part of what I discussed with BBC journalists throughout the day on Saturday and also with other journalists across the weekend.

At RoSPA, we did not proactively share our views on the 80mph limit, or, indeed, any aspect of the awful tragedy on the M5 - we only responded to direct enquiries from the media, and we, like other road safety/motoring organisations had many enquiries. The 80mph speed limit proposal, and also the issue of potential distraction, were the two most common lines of questioning from both broadcast and print journalists, and this is continuing today. I’m sure you will have seen comments from other organisations on these issues too.

Before recording the BBC TV piece in question and also during some of the recorded answers I gave to questions, I spoke at some length with the journalists about how I was in no way happy or able to link the M5 tragedy directly to the proposal to increase the motorway speed limit to 80mph. I actually told the journalist who recorded the piece that RoSPA would in no way seek to gain “political mileage” in such a way, not just because of the massive insensitivity of doing that but because it was also far too early in the investigation to even begin to speculate about the contributory factors to the crash.

The BBC, however, was doing a backgrounder piece on general motorway safety to accompany its breaking news coverage about the accident and this was the package they wanted RoSPA to be part of, not the breaking news to talk about the actual accident. As well as talking about motorways being the safest roads in the UK, supported by the national road casualty figures they shared, the journalist felt it important to mention the current big issue that people were talking about with regards to motorway safety - the proposal to raise the limit to 80mph. That’s why she asked me directly about this issue. In my answer, I was very clear to stress that RoSPA’s view on the proposal was one that we had held before the accident and that it was in no way prompted by the crash. Also, in no way did I urge the Government to reconsider its 80mph proposal “in light of the accident” - as has been suggested in a couple of places. I’m not sure if other organisations have done that or not, but that line has certainly not come from RoSPA.

It’s important that people talk about whether the motorway limit should be increased, and blogs are a great place to do this (I’m sure there’ll be a lot more discussion when the Government issues its consultation), but I am sorry if on this occasion people thought RoSPA was seeking to gain something in the aftermath of a horrific crash.

Best wishes


Jo Bullock
Head of press and campaigns
Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

Tel: 0121 248 2134
Out-of-hours media enquiries: 07785 540349
Fax: 0121 248 2001

For what it's worth, I have always had the highest respect for RoSPA. Their system of advanced motorcycle testing, leading to the coveted RoSPA Gold, is way ahead of anything else in the UK as far as road riding goes, and I was very disappointed to see their approach in the BBC interview. Having read Jo's explanation, I have had my faith somewhat restored. I have emphasised certain bits above to illustrate what I mean. The formatting of her email (removed in version above) suggests that the message was pre-written and then individualised and sent to a lot of people. I suspect they got a lot of flak that they weren't expecting over this.

BBC promoting an anti-car, anti-speed agenda? Who'd-a thunk it?

The Workers' Party

Just a few of the Shadow Cabinet:

Ed Miliband, Leader of Opposition
TV journalist
Researcher for Harriet Harman
Adviser to Gordon Brown
Treasury adviser

Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of Opposition
Legal Officer for NCCL

Ed Balls, Shadow Chancellor
Adviser to Gordon Brown
Treasury adviser

Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary
Researcher for Gordon Brown
Solicitor (6 months)

Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary
Political Researcher for John Smith
Policy specialist for Bill Clinton
Policy Adviser to Harriet Harman

Sadiq Khan, Shadow Justice Secretary
Human Rights lawyer

Rosie Winterton, Shadow Chief Whip
PA to John Prescott
Parliamentary Officer
MD of PR company
Head of Office for John Prescott

Andy Burnham, Shadow Health Secretary
Researcher for Tessa Jowell
Parliamentary Officer
Administrator with Football Task Force
Adviser to Chris Smith

Stephen Twigg, Shadow Education Secretary
NUS President
Local councillor
Amnesty International and NCVO

Any real jobs there?


Is it any wonder we are in the state we're in?

I'll do a similar exercise shortly with the Tory and Lib Dem front benches as a comparison. I don't think it'll be very different.

They haven't gone away ...

... those hypocritical economic illiterates on the Labour benches.

Theresa May is reportedly 'furious' about allegations that border controls were relaxed this summer, allowing non-EU nationals in without identity checks, and not checking entrants against 'watch lists' of 'people of interest'. Three officials, including the head of the UK Border Force, have been suspended while an investigation is carried out.

For Labour, of course, this isn't enough, and Yvette Cooper (Mrs Balls) is asking some pretty searching questions.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has written to Mrs May to ask how many terror suspects or illegal immigrants may have arrived during the period covered by the claims.
That is a question to which there can be no answer (if no-one was looking, how can anyone tell who got through?), and she knows it, but it doesn't stop La Balls from trying to score a petty political point.

This, from the party who relaxed border controls from 2001 to 2008 as part of a deliberate plan to encourage mass immigration, in order to "rub the Right's nose in diversity". As a result of that policy, we simply don't know how many illegal immigrants got into the country, nor whether they were terrorists or tourists. But to question the policy was to be branded a racist bigot.

Labour: stinking opportunistic hypocrites, the lot of them.


I don't think I know what this word means any more.

Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but the dictionary definition seems about right:
Progressive, adj.
1. Moving forward; advancing.
2. Proceeding in steps; continuing steadily by increments: progressive change.
3. Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods
So, there's the basic notion of change, and the implication that the change is towards something better. I can agree with that.

So what the heck are they talking about here?
The Welsh government says it plans to have a new law in place for presumed consent of organ donation by 2015.

The legislation would require people to opt out of donating their organs when they die, rather than opting in by signing the donor register.
Interesting that the BBC has now started referring to the Welsh Government (originally conceived as the Welsh Assembly) in the same way that it transmuted the Scottish Parliament to the Scottish Government a few years ago. No agenda there, by any chance? No? OK, back to the topic:
A spokesperson said: "We believe we should be progressive on this issue and follow the example of those countries with excellent records on organ donation, where an opt-out system is a key element.
That wasn't coincidence, either. Roy Thomas of the Kidney Wales Foundation said this:
"I believe the Welsh government has got this absolutely right and are progressive. Indeed I think the rest of the UK will follow."
We heard it all at the last election, with Gordon Brown's talk of a 'progressive consensus', by which he meant 'anyone who isn't a Tory'. But what does this new use of the word mean? The idea is to assume that people will give their organs for transplant after their death, unless they specifically state that they do not so wish. The State is assuming ownership of your body, or at the very least assuming you will agree with it, and its priorities and projects, unless you tell it otherwise.

That's progressive? It's change, certainly, but whether that change is towards something better is a moot point. What's better for you may not be better for me, but under the 'progressive' banner, the person who uses the word is the person who knows best.

In simpler days, it used to mean listening to Yes rather than the Bay City Rollers. How times change.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Seasonal Quiz

Here's one for you pub quiz fans:

Name two dates from English history:
  • One where everyone knows the date, but not the year, and

  • One where everyone knows the year, but not the date.
  • 1605

  • 14 October.
You can tell I am work, can't you?

Blaming the Bonfire

It's starting to look as though a culprit has been found for the M5 accident on Friday evening - a nearby bonfire.
Police probing the M5 crash which killed seven people have said a firework display next to the road is the "major line of inquiry".

Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, of Avon and Somerset Police, said he was focusing on the event held on Friday night.

He said "a bank of smoke" was across the M5 at the time of the crash.
This may well be true. Fires have a habit of making a lot of smoke, and the wind has a habit of taking that smoke where it is not wanted. Sometimes this causes problems. It does not mean that fires should be banned.

I lived for a long time in North and South Humberside, an area of predominantly arable farming. At certain times of year, the farmers used to burn off the stubble in the fields, which caused massive thick clouds of yellow-white smoke to hang over the landscape. Often, the wind would blow it across roads - even major routes - and the traffic would come to a near standstill for a while. It was like a very thick fog, only it made you cough as well as blinding you. People grumbled, obviously (especially if you had a load of clean washing on the line when they set it off), but no-one suggested that the burning should be banned. It was a seasonal thing, part of the way of life in those areas, and you accepted it.

I have a feeling that a different view will be taken over the bonfire smoke from Taunton Rugby Club. Even if the smoke is not found to be a primary cause of the accident, I am sure that there will be calls for bonfires near major routes (and how many are not?) to be banned. After all, if it saves just one life ...

Sorry, no. Bonfires are part of our tradition, going back thousands of years. Never mind recent history like the Gunpowder Plot - our Celtic ancestors were burning the old year away back in the Iron Age, and I'm sure their Neolithic forebears were doing something similar. The smoke from a bonfire is just something that we have learned to deal with, even as motorists - back to that old rule about 'being able to stop within the distance you can see to be clear'.

Sometimes I think our roads are too good. Because of the regulations surrounding motorway construction, we expect good surfaces, shallow bends, consistent road marking and signage, control of joining traffic, and so on. In short, we expect them to be an ideal environment in which we can go fast and not have to think too much. We feel 'entitled' to a certain standard, and when something unexpected comes along, we can't cope. More, we are annoyed, because that kind of thing 'shouldn't be allowed to happen'.

I think we are going to see a curtailment of bonfires "for everyone's benefit". That would be sad, but it's easier to do than, God forbid, expecting people to think for themselves.

And, for a bonus point, in the coverage of this over the next few days, look out for the climate change argument to be added to the mix - all that nasty CO2 being pumped out for no good reason every year. It will be there, mark my words.

Well, durr ...

Apparently, Kent has been fairly quiet:
Kent Fire and Rescue Service said there were no major incidents in the county on Saturday night.

"We went to a few false alarms which turned out to be bonfires, which happens every bonfire night," said a spokesman.

M5 crash

Let's get one thing out of the way: the M5 motorway crash was horrific and dreadful, and my heart goes out to those involved - perhaps especially to the loved ones of those who died, as it seems that some perished in an appalling manner, trapped in their cars while a firestorm went on around them. Living with the knowledge that this was how someone you loved ended their life sounds like a lifetime's heartache to me. This is not the time to be making contentious statements based on a partial understanding of what happened. There was a lady from RoSPA on the BBC News this evening trying to get the Government to 'think again' about the proposed raising of the speed limit from 70 to 80. No-one knows what caused the crash, not even the policemen dealing with it, so how anyone can go on the telly and use the dreadful events to promote their agenda as if the causes were all laid out and understood by everyone is a mystery - and leaves a pretty unpleasant taste in the mouth.

But this won't stop the hard of thinking from posting their incisive analysis. COLIN's response on the Yahoo News site is typical:
horrific crash on M5 many DEAD and they want to increase speed limit from 70 to 80 God help all of us
Here's the logic: for cars to run into each other on a motorway, they must have been going too fast. Therefore, lower speed limits are the answer.

Right; and wrong. On a motorway in thick fog, 30 mph is suicidally fast. On a clear day with light traffic, 90 mph is a safe speed. Any general speed limit is, by its nature, arbitrary. It's the speed in relation to the conditions that either avoids or causes accidents. And getting that right is all about training, not arbitrary enforcement of a number on a stick.

All the witness accounts that I have read say that the cars involved were travelling below the speed limit in any case, so how a higher overall limit would make accidents like this more likely is not obvious.

But watch for the usual suspects (I haven't seen Brake commenting yet, but I am sure they will) coming on the airwaves to call for speed limits to be ratcheted down yet again. Despite the fact that this is nothing, nothing, to do with this awful event.

I suspect that the outcome of any investigation of the crash will conclude that some people were travelling too fast for the conditions, which is so obvious it hardly needs saying, sadly. What will be more interesting is the way that various vested interests will use the incident to further their own agendas.

Effects of the US recession

The recession in the USA has hit everybody really hard…

My mate got a pre-declined credit card in the mail.

Wives are having sex with their husbands because they can’t afford batteries.

CEO’s are now playing miniature golf.

Exxon-Mobil laid off 25 Congressmen.

A stripper was killed when her audience showered her with rolls of pennies while she danced.

I saw a Mormon with only one wife.

If the bank returns your check marked “Insufficient Funds,” you call them and ask if they meant you or them.

McDonald’s is selling the 1/4 ouncer.

Angelina Jolie adopted a child from America.

Parents in Beverly Hills fired their nannies and learned their children’s names.

A friend had an exorcism but couldn’t afford to pay for it, and they re-possessed her.

A truckload of Americans was caught sneaking into Mexico.

A picture is now only worth 200 words.

The Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas is now managed by Somali pirates.

Friday 4 November 2011

Be careful, Dublo Seven ...

You'll enjoy this, even if you don't like model trains. Sit back and enjoy the next five minutes.

When I was clearing out some old stuff recently, I came across a faux-parchment document that brought a smile to my face. My Mum must have kept it and it came to me in a box full of her personal effects when she died. No scanner, so here it is, word for word, minus the elaborate curly script:


At a Directors' Meeting at the Headquarters in the City of Liverpool, County of Lancaster, on the ...FIFTH... day of ...NOVEMBER... 19 ...57... Richard Xxxx of ...DARLINGTON... was elected a Member of the Company and is entitled to the full benefits of Membership

In Witness Whereof, this certificate has been issued.

Roland G Hornby

Membership No.

I was almost four years old.


Thursday 3 November 2011

TomTom Rant

If there was a World award for Companies-with-a-great-product-who-nevertheless-treat-their-customers-like-dirt, then TomTom would win it. Little-red-hands-on-a-bongo-drum down.

A few clarifying things first. I have owned a TomTom since 2005, and I have also owned two Garmins. I like the TomTom product. It is easy to use, the graphics and software are good and, with the usual caveat about applying common sense to everything a machine tells you, very accurate and reliable at routefinding. Many people say the Garmin range are technically better, but my Garmin (bought to tide me over while my original TomTom was in for repair, see below) had me doing a U-turn while on a dual carriageway in Oxford, and it was only because it was early on a Sunday morning that I wasn't squashed by a juggernaut as I nervously extracted myself. The software on the Garmin is less intuitive, too.

My first TomTom GO was one of the old square-screen ones with a deep back like an old television. I think the storage was a mini-hard drive, and I believe that this was the problem, although TomTom never admitted it. The hard drive just wasn't robust enough for the environment of the car. Interestingly, TomTom made sure that their next model was solid-state. The unit kept locking up, and either failing to shut down at all, or going into a loop on startup, where it cycled endlessly through the splash screen and the rest, without ever getting to navigation mode. I first noticed it when it 'forgot' my destination half-way through a journey and had to be reprogrammed by the side of the road. After a while, it started looping and freezing, and eventually I contacted TomTom tech support through their website. Most of the time you are dealing with a machine here, where you are presented with a list of responses, none of which say "the fucking thing doesn't work and I want it mended". Three times I negotiated my way through this, and three times it was sent away (to a location in Fife IIRC) for 'repair'. Each time, they simply reflashed the chip and returned the unit, which lasted another month or two before collapsing.

And, of course, each time they did this I lost all my 'favourites'. This is one of the great things abouyt satnav units. You can save any location on the surface of the planet as a 'favourite', and the unit will faithfully guide you back to it from anywhere. So all my regular destinations (family addresses, bike shops in distant cities, certain remote petrol stations, and so on) were set into the machine. And each time the unit was re-flashed, it went back to factory settings and I lost the lot. (Before anyone says I should have saved a backup, by the time the unit locked up, connecting to the PC was an impossibility.) I put up with this when it happened, mainly because I could re-enter most of the places I wished to from my (paper) address book.

In 2006, we went for a holiday in Italy, to the area of Tuscany just South of Florence. We had a fantastic time, and found a lot of superb places that we might wish to return to one day - spectacular views, nice little trattorias, nooks and crannies off the beaten track - which were all entered faithfully as 'favourites' in the TomTom. And then, half-way home through France, the unit packed up for good. I went through the usual website routine, and got them to take it back for 'repair' once more, this time with the plea that they save the favourites as I was unable to back the unit up to do so myself. Of course, it came back squeaky-clean and I had lost the lot. At no point in the process was I able to speak or even write to a human being.

I went utterly ballistic, but of course there is no option for that on the customer service web script. So I found the name and address of the MD in the Netherlands and wrote him a long letter. I didn't hold back; he had a three-page, blow-by-blow, dates and locations, case reference numbers, the lot. I didn't expect a reply, and this was when I bought the Garmin, as I had made the decision to bin the TomTom. A couple of weeks later, I received a gracious and very apologetic reply from someone high up in TomTom BV, with the offer of a brand-new, top-of-the-range unit free of charge. This was the GO720, which I received in 2007 - solid state electronics and a wide screen. He also admitted that they had had 'issues' with the service centre in Fife, and that they were no longer using it. Little comfort for me, but interesting.

This new unit has been superb and totally fault-free for five years. It has rattled around in the car's glovebox for all that time, it has been glued to the Honda and taken to Denmark, has been dropped and abused, and it has never failed me. But after five years, the maps were totally out of date. Bristol, especially, might as well have been another planet as far as the unit was concerned, and nearly every journey had me apparently travelling through green fields whenever there was a new road. So I decided to splash out and update the maps. It was £60 for the update and another three updates over a year, which I didn't think was too bad.

Big mistake.

What TomTom don't tell you while you have your credit card out is that, not only are the new maps so huge that you will need to buy extra storage if you want them all on the unit at once (luckily I had a spare 4GB SD card floating round), but by uploading the new maps you will lose all of your favourites. Yes, I had done a backup, and yes, I had the favourites stored in a secure location. But the new maps use a different file format, and the old favourites file won't work.

The new Western Europe map is vast - over 2GB - and took all afternoon and half the evening to download. Then it said I didn't have enough memory, so I used the SD card. Then it said I still didn't have enough memory, but I carried on anyway, and it seemed to be OK with that. Then I found my favourites were gone - I had loads, five years' worth, some irreplaceable - and I spent the evening on the web looking for solutions. Here's the deal as far as I am able to ascertain it:

There is a file in the Western_Europe folder called MapSettings.cfg. This contains all the user-defined information, such as favourites, recent destinations, the 'home' setting and so on. Loading a new map has always meant (for those in the know) saving a copy of this file to the desktop and copying it back to the new map folder afterwards, as the map installation process will delete it from the unit. First question for TomTom: why did I have to do my own research to find this out?

However, with the newer maps, this won't work. The unit doesn't recognise the file; it's apparently in a different format, although the name and extension are the same. There is a well-known workaround, which involves converting your MapSettings.cfg file to an ov2 file using shareware called Poiedit and then loading your favourites as a new category in Points of Interest, but this is fiddly and inconvenient, both to do and in subsequent use. Second question for TomTom: why did I have to do my own research to find this out?

Third question for TomTom: why the fucking fuck didn't you warn me about this before I gave you my sixty quid? If I had known I would lose all my favourite locations I would not have bothered. I would have paid a bit extra and got a new unit. Keeping the favourites was the main reason for upgrading, rather than renewing.

I assume that TomTom are concerned more with getting the mapping right and the software good than with the individual user's personal experiences. This is OK as far as it goes, but when we use technology like a satnav, we personalise it, and that personalisation is an important part of the experience. If there are technical constraints which necessitate changes that impact on users' personalisation (such as the deletion of a 'favourites' file), then at least warn the users first and suggest ways round it. Otherwise you just piss people off. And they have pissed me off, big style.

This poses me a problem. I am going to get a bike-specific satnav at some point when funds allow. Because of my good experiences with the GO720, I had pretty much settled on the TomTom Rider: cheaper than the Garmin Zumo, comes ready with a headset, and I know and like the way it works. Now I am not sure. I'm pretty much at the point of saying that I will never buy a TomTom product ever again, just because they obviously care so little for their customers. Automated tech support and email-only customer service do not make you feel as if you matter.

Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to sit down with a coffee and my address book, and start re-entering all my favourites to the TomTom.

Manually, for fuck's sake. In two-thousand-and-eleven.
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