Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Faced Off

At the risk of becoming a moaning blogger; I’m irritated again.

You see, the people to whom I'm closest are, I'm guessing, pretty much similar to those closest to you - they have their good days and their bad days. They’re often chipper and upbeat, sometimes depressed; regularly using gin as a crutch, and occasionally experiencing crises.

But my casual acquaintances are a different story.

I am sitting at work, mildly irritated, around 20 degrees cooler than I’d ideally like, and feeling racked with guilt about the £60 splurge I had in White Stuff last week. (Forgive me readers?)

But if I’m judging by their jolly old Facebook updates, their lives are one long sequence of breathtaking road trips, beach holidays, perfect weddings, exciting new jobs and adorable new babies. They are, in short, incredibly irritating, and I'd de-friend them in a second, except that it would be even more irritating to suspect them of having so much frivolity behind my back.

Everyone is on Facebook. It was once considered exotic, but now, if you are without an account, you are suspected of having something to hide. You are the kid at school who isn’t allowed sweets because they’ll rot your teeth, and your parents don’t let you watch TV. No scratch that, you don’t even have a TV. You, my (non-Facebook) friend, are an oddity.

But I have long thought that Disgracebook was a social nightmare. Anyone who has ever had a Facebook page will know what I mean. On signing up, you are asked to fill in a questionnaire. Under date of birth you are asked to fill in your favourite quotation (because obviously everyone has one of those); then what you are looking for: friendship; dating; a relationship; networking? In the good old days at least you were offered "random play".

It is a minefield. You can’t even leave. When you do try and delete your account, you are offered a range of brainwashing phrases about why you should stay in the happy land of social media. ‘Stay in touch’ with all range of people you’d probably ignore if you passed them in the street, by endlessly providing tiny updates on the minutiae of your life.

It turns out I am not alone in feeling annoyed, anxious and a complete failure. The researchers at Edinburgh Napier University have shown that using Facebook stresses you right out. In fact, the more time people spent on Facebook, the more anxious they became. Factors included, the dreaded ‘friend-envy’, tiresome stalking and resentment of anyone who seemed to be having a more fabulous time on the site.

Of course, we can't blame our quasi-friends, in the public-ish world of Facebook, for not wanting to reveal their disappointments and sadnesses, can we? But I think I want out. Perhaps I’ll just leave before the guilt of turning down a friend request gets too much.

On second thought, I can’t. The desire to update my status to ‘Rachel has just left Facebook’ is too strong.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Happy Hallmark Day

Call me a hopeless romantic, but I can’t help but love Valentine’s Day. Sitting in earshot of dozens of other couples in a crowded restaurant, trying hard to look the most loved up whilst enjoying a special Valentine’s menu. Who knew you could get a heart shaped steak? How about telling our loved ones how we feel by purchasing white teddies clutching flame-retardant hearts? Sending 12 of the 1 million roses that Interflora will be delivering on Monday? Or, if you believe a marketing email that I recently received, a sophisticated Valentine’s Day gift for your beloved would be, naturally, a roll of heart printed toilet paper.

Proof, once and for all, that romance is dead.

Ok, so you got me, I don’t love Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is a huge commercial racket. And I don’t even like pink.

I do wonder what St. Valentine would say about heart-print pants and romantic toilet roll. Like many saints, actual details about Valentine's life are hard to come by. There are at least three saints with that name, but the famous one was a Christian priest who lived in Rome in the third century.

After Pope Gelasius set aside the day to honour St Valentine in 496, the saint gradually became adopted as the patron saint of lovers.

I should add that St Valentine was also subsequently held up as a patron for epilepsy and the plague. Neither of these has proved to be commercially viable.

If you are trying to offer love and passion on a zero-budget, then perhaps I can help. Poundland’s range of Valentine’s gifts should however be avoided. Invariably polyester, definitely the wrong side of tasteful, and almost certainly manufactured in questionable conditions.

The Daily Mirror has a tip for those who haven’t picked up a card yet. You won’t find a cheaper card on the market than Wilkinson’s 10p offering. To the point, the “You’re worth every penny” greeting is close to the Cash Queens’ hearts.

Just remember to take the price tag off, lest they discover they are in fact worth just ten said pennies.

If you don’t have the funds for a lavish gift and aren’t tempted by Poundland’s offerings, The Guardian suggests you write a love list.

Write down 10 things you love about your partner on a sheet of paper and stick it somewhere they will see it first thing in the morning, such as inside their wardrobe or on the bathroom mirror. If you are hard-pushed thinking of 10, go for five instead.

For me, this is concerning. If you’re hard pushed for 10 reasons, you’re probably going to be hard pushed full stop.

It's very possible that the only person who is truly happy on Valentine's Day is the chief executive of Hallmark. But we can perhaps all draw a little solace from remembering that there's always somebody worse off:  Saint Valentine ended his days by being pelted with rocks, clubbed and beheaded. Not a terribly good start for the patron Saint of love, although, unlike some romantic liaisons, at least that would have been over pretty swiftly.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Smugness on every channel

I am beginning to dislike Kirsty Allsop. I used to love Location-Location, but I am disillusioned. All she does is marry ‘smug-30-somethings’ with picture-box cottages in Cornwall, wearing her natty Hobbs outfit, looking smug. She never even bothers to ask her smug clients where the hell they got the cash from.
Please ask them Kirsty; if only so I can apply for whatever dreadfully overpaid job they’re doing.
Life, I have realised, is nothing like Location-Location. Nevertheless, I am sure most of us have spent at least 200 hours of our lives watching couples (mainly smug) agonise over whether to stretch their budget to £650,000 for the thatched cottage or stick at £599,000 for the converted barn in the middle of nowhere. And you know something else? I bet there’s never actually anyone on the end of the phone when they talk to the ‘estate agents’ from the gastro-pub beer garden.
But in ‘Smug aspirational TV stakes’, Kirsty and Phil don’t hold a candle to Grand Designs. You too can have your dream-lifestyle; build your fantasy perspex home with its eco-composting, sustainable insulation and antique bath tiles. That is of course if you have a quarter of a million in the bank, a year off work, and are, as well as being a financial advisor, a highly capable electrician.
Rich people used to spare us the details of their wealth by building high fences around their giant homes and blacking out their car windows. Now we must watch it all on every channel. And we’ve got time on our hands, we the great unwashed, as we wait patiently for our fortnightly dole appointment.  Of course we’re not all cashing our dole cheques and drinking white-lightning, but we might as well be lying in a ditch for all the respect we’d get at a middle-class, ‘smug’ inhabited dinner party.
For years, we have made the error of contrasting ourselves unfavourably with television stars, imagining we know them when all we really know is a carefully edited presentation. But these are supposed ordinary people. Albeit ordinary people with far from ordinary bank accounts.
Perhaps these TV shows should just come right out and say it, ‘This is what you could have won;’ if only you’d been born in Downton Abbey, married a banker, or been properly schooled.
I might have to change the channel and watch TV shows where the characters are renting their homes, worrying about money, and the only homage to green living is low energy light bulbs.
Coronation Street. That seems like a good bet.  I can watch from my pleasant rented flat as a working-class single mother who struggles with her weight is made redundant. Perhaps for a change, I will not feel like a cider drinking down-and-out.
What? Is that Leanne Battersby wearing MY jumper? Oh the shame. I knew shopping in Primark was a bad idea. Maybe I’ll switch back and continue envying Kirsty’s new coat. Superiority is overrated anyway.

Monday, 7 February 2011

In defence of the strongly worded letter

It’s not terribly British to complain is it? We’d rather mutter under our breath and tut loudly rather than suffer the embarrassment of expressing our displeasure. But we should only be prepared to part with our hard-earned cash if we get treated properly, and if we don't, should spend our money elsewhere.

I must confess I am a bit of a serial strongly-worded-letter-writer. I’m not proud of being ‘disgruntled in Edinburgh’, but I firmly believe that if we want to start getting the service we deserve, then complain we must.

I recently complained to my bank after receiving startlingly shocking service in my local branch. They had an online system set up ready to receive my complaint. I explained the nature of my concern, relating to the rude and unhelpful member of staff I encountered, and could not resist ending with the slightly snide snipe of, ‘I am not sure where the happy, helpful, smiling staff of your TV advert work; but it is certainly not in Edinburgh.’

Within the hour I received an email from said bank. Very swift, I thought.

‘Thank you for your e-mail.  I am sorry you were unhappy with the service you recently received, but grateful you have taken the time to explain why.  So that you know how we deal with complaints, I have attached our explanatory leaflet, ‘Making things better.’ Our understanding of your complaint is outlined below. Please let me know if you think I have misunderstood, or missed out any of your concerns.

Your complaint:  You’d like to know which branch the customer service advisers from our TV advert work at.’

Making things better they were not.

I should have known. This was the same bank that misplaced my £1000 cheque, insisted that I had ‘dropped it in the street’ rather than paid it into my account, and when they finally located it in someone else’s bank account, asked me to nominate the customer service advisor that had handled my case for an award.

Whilst they may not have great customer service, at least they have a sense of humour.

In the era of cheap-deals, low cost and disposable goods, is it any wonder we’re not getting the service we expect?

Even John Lewis, the beacon of high-street quality and unfaltering customer service, who for 85 years has proudly promised to ‘refund the difference,’ has had a subtle policy change that now means many customers who ask for the price match promise will be turned away.

Even in the face of this damning evidence, we will not be disheartened, and will proudly and unapologetically venture forth, firmly believing in our rights as consumers and the power of the pen.

That is as long as our complaint isn’t with trainline.

Trainline have an online complaints system, not dissimilar to Facebook chat. This is no doubt so their ‘agents’ can complete other policy related tasks whilst anonymously fobbing you, the customer, off.

A friend, with a justified and reasonable complaint, signs in to said complaints system.

He is greeted by an ‘agent’, whose name is synonymous with understanding, consideration and utterly reasoned behaviour.

“Good afternoon”, it reads, “My name is Adolf, how may I help you?”

Computer, unsurprisingly, said no.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Couldn't make it up

I have come back to the parental home for the weekend, only to be greeted by a brand new giant Sony flatscreen tv.
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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Throw your money down the drain

I think I might have to change my tune. Money Saving Madam is in a mood. Month one of saving has ended and I can report that there is nothing in the pot. Zara’s profits have dropped by 10% but we’re still in the red. Perhaps I don’t care for the property ladder after all.

If it isn’t enough that my own bank account is against me, so are the statistics.

It costs approximately one arm and one leg to buy a home. The average property is 5 times the average salary. The proportion of first-time buyers able to buy a home without financial assistance has hit an all time low. Just 17%.

With rising rents, the cap on university fees removed, and a desperate employment market, it is hard to see how the next generation are ever going to conjure up the savings.

Actually, sod the next generation. How am I ever going to conjure up the savings?

Perhaps home ownership is overrated anyway. How often I hear people talk of their ‘cursed mortgage’. The mortgage is the reason they stay in a job they hate, why they cannot holiday at will, and why they endlessly wait for the day it is paid off and they are free.

Common wisdom (which is far removed from common sense) is that you should take on the largest mortgage that you can afford. By doing this you are able to trick people into thinking you have enough money to live in the smart part of town. And because your mortgage is just more than you can really afford, you have effectively made yourself poor.

Renters amongst you will be familiar with the phrase ‘throwing money down the drain.’

Let us examine the moral high-ground of our homeowner friends.

Say they have a £200,000 mortgage. On a 25 year term they will pay well over £240,000 in interest. So the idea that they own their house is a myth. The bank owns it, and is selling it back to them at a ludicrous mark up.

£440,000 for a £200,000 flat? I think has better rates.

To me it seems that the mortgage system is just an organised method of throwing money down a different drain. I can’t deny that I’d still like my own front door, but for now, I’ll lease the one I’ve got and try and keep the usurers away from it for another month.