Archive for the month “February, 2017”

Stories from the shop front.

Some stories are funny stories.  Some stories are sad stories. Some stories just give you little insights into human nature and the human condition.

I experienced all of the above in the OXFAM shop last week.

Early in my shift, an elderly man struggled into the shop with a huge suitcase on wheels, the sort of case that you sometimes see on luggage carousels and that make you wonder how anyone can manoeuvre them around the airport, let alone get them to a final destination.

The gentleman came up to the counter and told me that he had some things to donate.  He then proceeded to open the case and, in the middle of the shop, handed over what were clearly the clothes of his late wife.

I wished I could have taken him into a back room to enable him to make his donation with some degree of privacy, but the sorting room in the shop where I work is in the cellar down an awkward set of stone steps and I was on my own in the shop.

When we had transferred all of his wife’s effects into plastic sacks, he thanked me for my help and said that he hoped some good would come of his donation.  Then he left, pulling his suitcase behind him.

A hour or so later another customer came in – this time an elderly lady. She browsed the racks for a while and came to the counter with a very attractive cashmere cardigan that she had found.  I think it was priced at £10.99 and she was clearly very pleased with her purchase.

Unfortunately she hadn’t reckoned with the incompetent assistant who was serving her.  For reasons that I still don’t understand, every button that I pressed on the wretched till seemed to disobey me and to mock my efforts to retrieve the situation.  I explained that it was only my second morning in the shop, apologised profusely for holding her up and promised to get it right eventually.

The lady was very patient and pleasant, but did ask me to hurry up as she had to get to the nursing home to visit her husband.  As I fumbled and fumed, she went on to tell me that she had looked after her husband for fourteen years as he gradually descended into dementia but that his condition had now become unmanageable.  She herself was seventy nine years old and couldn’t physically look after her husband any longer, which was why  he had had to go into nursing care.  “The home is costing nearly £1000 a week,” she explained, “so I shouldn’t really be buying cashmere cardigans, but sometimes you just need something to life your spirits, don’t you?”

At this point the cash register decided to co-operate, I took the lady’s money and she off she went to visit her husband.

I was beginning to wonder if I had the emotional resilience to survive life in an OXFAM shop.

Then half an hour later, the mood lightened.  Apart from clothing and handbags and shoes, the shop offers a range of what I would describe as cheap and cheerful costume jewelry. A young woman came in and asked to have a look as some of the bracelets that were in a glass cabinet next to the till.  She selected a few pieces and tried them on.  She was then seized by the agonies of indecision.  She asked my opinion.

Now I consider myself to be an expert on a whole range of subjects.  If you want to know the date of the first performance of The Mikado or the names of the capital cities of Africa or, indeed, the prepositions in German that take the accusative, then I’m your man.  But when it comes to the aesthetics of artificial diamonds or pearls that have never seen the bottom of an ocean, I have to admit that I am out of my depth.

Still racked by doubt, she asked for a few more pieces to be  laid out on the counter for her to consider. After several minutes she had a flash of inspiration.  She reached into her bag and took out a brand-new pair of elbow-length white gloves, which she proceeded to put on.

One by one, the assembled bracelets and bangles were  displayed against the flattering background of the white gloves.  Genius!  It soon became clear that the very first one she had looked at, an impressive array of glass diamonds in a setting that looked a bit like silver, was the obvious front-runner. I gave my professional opinion that the bracelet set the gloves off beautifully and the job was done.  The decision made, the rest of the priceless items went back in to the glass cabinet, the till, for once, did as it was told and the young women left the shop, very happy with her new acquisition.

OXFAM was £1.99 richer!

There are worse ways of spending a Tuesday morning.



What goes around…

In a previous blog posting I spoke about the importance of having stories to bring to the dinner table, especially now that we are fully retired.  So the search is on for useful things to do that are also interesting, story-worthy and, if at all possible, fun.

So a few weeks ago I was walking past one of the numerous OXFAM shops in Brighton and there was a signboard calling for volunteers. There was a certain irresistible circularity about the idea of giving a bit of time to helping in an OXFAM shop, having already spent fifteen years of my life working for the organisation.

So I went in and was given an application form.  This was the first story.  I was supposed to give the names of two people who could vouch for my good character.  Well, apart from the fact that there are very few people in Brighton who would be able to make a judgement on my honesty, reliability or probity, I was a bit reluctant to ask anyone for a reference for a job that would just involve my working for one morning a week as a volunteer in an OXFAM shop. Impasse.

The poor shopleader to whom I spoke was caught between her desire to recruit a new volunteer for her city-centre shop and the requirements of OXFAM that all volunteers should be able to provide character references.  In the end a compromise was reached.  I called upon my long-suffering friend in Lewes to agree to a telephone call with the shop-leader and I gave OXFAM’s HR department in Oxford as my second referee.  I guessed hat they would have a record of me somewhere in the files.

So now Tuesday mornings are taken care of.  I am  the latest and lowliest volunteer raising funds for the organisation that was my employer for nearly fifteen years.


The other  delicious irony about this situation was that my first hurdle on my first morning was to learn to master the electronic till.  Why ironic?  Because when I first worked for OXFAM in the late seventies, it was just at the point when the organisation decided that all shops should be equipped with electric cash registers, as a way of keeping better control of the money coming in.

The reaction on the part of some of the volunteer shop leaders and helpers was one of outrage!  How can OXFAM justify spending all this money on fancy tills when the wooden drawer, 0r the biscuit tin would serve just as well?  How did OXFAM expect ladies of a certain age to handle all this new-fangled equipment?  Did OXFAM not trust its volunteers any more?

It was a big part of my job as an local organiser at that time to hold meetings to attempt to placate the troops, calm the jangled nerves and explain that millions of pounds were coming in through the shops and that Oxfam had a duty towards the donating public to ensure proper stewardship of those funds.  Extensive  training sessions which involved a great deal of positive reinforcement and general reassurance eventually overcame much of the volunteers’ nervousness and gradually the majority of them got the hang of the new-fangled tills.  Some left and took their voluntary services elsewhere.

So now I was faced with the prospect of getting my head around the latest generation of electronic cash-desk wizardry that, apparently, records every sale on a big computer in Oxford where shadowy figures collate the shadowy figures and decisions are made about which shops should sell which goods. (The shop where I work, for example, concentrates entirely on adults’ clothing, shoes and accessories, everything else, books, bric-a-brac, children’s wear etc being passed on to the other shops in town.)

My first session on the till was humbling, particularly when I tried to charge one customer £599 for a shirt  and then couldn’t remember how to go back and void a sale.

In the middle of all this confusion, the shop manager decided to leave me to sink or swim and disappeared into the shop’s cellar where mountains of sacks of clothing were waiting to be sorted, steam-cleaned and priced.  Minutes later, a young couple came in and tried to sell me two ornate, Egyptian sarcophagi, complete with little mummified corpses inside. (No, I am not making this up.  It really happened.)

imagescvo0sk38I explained that OXFAM shops do not usually purchase stock for resale but rely on donated goods and that therefore I couldn’t help them.

Five minutes later a couple of security guards came in asking if I had had anyone in the shop trying to sell stolen tourist items.  I referred them to the shop manager who referred them to the CCTV and having viewed the footage, they sped off in hot pursuit.

Sadly I never found out if the young sarcophagus peddlers had been apprehended or not, but in many ways it didn’t matter.  I had a story to bring to the dinner table.



One last look back

There are increasing signs that we have started to get winter on the run, although if you’d seen the view from our bedroom yesterday, you might have thought otherwise.


But the signs of hope are definitely starting to appear.



So I thought I would just share a few more pictures that were taken on the day before we left the Lakes at the beginning of last month.

We took a walk from the village of Grange, along the Borrowdale Valley to Keswick.  The angels were smiling on us.














And at the end of the walk, this.


Perfect day!

Some things just have to be shared.

I am indebted to our friends from Lewes who made me aware of this.  At this time when there is a lot of anger and criticism flying around about everything from Britain’s decision to leave the EU to the appointment of America’s new president, I think it is timely that we are reminded that it is sometimes good to examine our own moral standards before criticising others.

I would like to invite you to complete the following test of your own moral strength.  Please do this privately and don’t let anyone else influence your answer.  The result of the test is for you and for you alone.


Are you as moral as you think you are?
This test only has one question, but it’s a very important one.
By giving an honest answer, you will discover where you stand morally.
The test features an unlikely, completely fictional situation in which you
will have to make a decision.
Only you will know the results, so remember that your answer needs to be honest.


You are in Florida , Miami to be specific.
There is chaos all around you caused by a hurricane with severe flooding.
This is a flood of biblical proportions.
You are a photojournalist working for a major newspaper, and you’re caught
in the middle of this epic disaster.
The situation is near hopeless.
You’re trying to find the one photo that will make your career.
There are houses and people swirling around you, some disappearing under
the water.  Nature is unleashing all of its destructive fury.


Suddenly you see, through your view-finder, a man in the water.
He is fighting for his life, trying not to be taken down with the debris.
You move closer.
Somehow the man looks familiar.
You suddenly realize who it is.
It’s  Donald Trump!
At the same time you notice that the raging waters are about to take
him under forever.


You can save the life of  Donald Trump  or you can shoot a dramatic
Pulitzer Prize winning photo, documenting the death of one of the
world’s most powerful man hell bent on the destruction of  USA and very possibly, the rest of the world.


Here’s the question, and please give an honest answer.

“Would you select high contrast colour film,   or
would you go with the classic simplicity of black and white?”

Bringing something to the table.

This is going to be something of a rambling tale.

For almost fifteen years I worked for OXFAM. The first seven were in the UK, initially based in Reading as an organiser supporting OXFAM shops and groups scattered throughout Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Then we moved to Sheffield and I became a grandly-named ‘Regional Coordinator’, with responsibility for a network of more than 200 shops stretching from South Yorkshire to the Orkneys and Shetlands. During that time, our son made his appearance at Sheffield’s Jessop’s Women’s Hospital.

I was expected to hold monthly regional meetings to bring together the Area Managers from the north of England and Scotland and these meetings were held in Penrith in Cumbria, three hours drive from Sheffield. If I needed to visit the managers in their areas to see any of their work on the ground, I could be away from home for days at a time, which I frequently was. All the while Linda held the fort, and the baby, at home.

When we knew that our daughter was on the way, we looked for ways of reducing my travelling. A Regional Coordinator’s job came up, based in Oxford, with responsibility for the shops in London and the Home Counties. This meant a bigger fundraising responsibility but much shorter travelling times. I applied for the job.

Initially my application for the South East Regional Coordinator’s job was rejected. My ‘Home Division Director’ told me that I was doing a fine job driving endlessly around Scotland and the north of England and that he saw no reason to move me. I was furious!

The job that I had been doing ‘up north’ was, frankly, not a lot of fun. I had been promoted from the position of Regional Organiser with responsibility for a few counties and plenty of ‘hands-on’ work with OXFAM shops and groups, to a newly created role of Regional Coordinator with overall responsibility for OXFAM’s activities from Sheffield to the very tip of Scotland.

This meant that I was promoted over the heads of a group of area managers who were older and more experienced than I was and who saw themselves as being effectively demoted by my appointment. They were, not unreasonably, less than pleased and saw no good reason to go out of their way to cooperate with me in this new structure. The whole restructuring exercise had been dreamt up by the Home Division Director without consultation or explanation and again not unreasonably, no-one could really see the need for it.

My meetings in Penrith were frosty affairs and my visits to the Areas were not welcomed. One Area Director resigned as soon as my appointment was announced. Another, shaking his head in despair at what he saw as the lunacy of the new structure, pointed out to me that my furthest north OXFAM shop was nearer to Oslo than it was to my office in Sheffield. I spent some very quiet evenings in bed and breakfasts in the areas during my visits, contemplating the folly of taking my new job in the first place.

Linda, meanwhile, was at home looking after our son, growing our daughter and keeping herself sane by doing some locum pharmacy, as and when it could be fitted in.

So when the letter from OXFAM House arrived, (yes, remember letters?), telling me that I was doing a fine job taming the northern tribes and should stay where I was for the good of OXFAM, I was not a happy rabbit. I wrote a steaming letter of protest to the Home Division Director, my boss, and copied it to the Director General of OXFAM, his boss. I was called down to Head Office for a discussion.

The result was that I was eventually appointed to the job in the south east, but lost my permanent employment status. I was given a two year contract. Towards the end of that period a vacancy came up in Africa, which was attractive for two reasons. Firstly it was at the ‘sharp end’ of OXFAM where the work was done that I had just spent seven years fundraising for. Secondly, and just as importantly, it was outside the Home Division and a long way away. I applied for it.

The job was as Field Director for Kenya, a job for which I was supremely unqualified, as the recruiters soon discovered. However, their favoured candidate was a young woman who had much more development experience than me but had never worked for a big NGO and knew nothing about OXFAM. It was decided that she would be appointed Field Director and I was offered the post of her deputy, again for a limited contract of two years.

The new job was four grades down on OXFAM’s salary scale therefore much less money, much lower status in the hierarchy and just as insecure. Totally irresistible. I jumped at it. All part, as Linda is wont to remark, of my ‘downwardly mobile career’ pattern.

From my point of view, it was one of the best decisions I had ever taken. With two children under five we moved to Kenya. I started a new job which again involved a lot of travelling, but this time I was visiting OXFAM projects in far-flung, exotic places, with names like Samburu and Turkana, sometimes for weeks at a time, bumping around in Land Rovers and other macho vehicles and being what was called ‘on safari’.

For Linda life was less exciting. She now had two children to look after and someone to help keep house and babysit when necessary. She was unable to practise as a pharmacist, even as a volunteer, because, despite the country being desperately short of qualified pharmacists and her holding a Masters degree in the subject, all sorts of bureaucratic obstacles were put in her way and she wasn’t prepared to engage in the time-honoured way of removing such obstacles – not in her own profession.

To her eternal credit, she did not go completely crazy with boredom. For this we have, at least in part, to thank my parents, Linda’s dad and a number of friends from home who took the opportunity of our being there to make visits to Kenya. By the end of our two years, Linda was an accomplished travel consultant able to arrange exciting holidays to suit all budgets either on the Indian Ocean, in the game parks or in the mountains.

As we got used to the life of an expatriate, we learned from people who worked in the British Embassy that the Number 1 reason that people give for failing to complete their contracts or for leaving the foreign service was the unhappiness of the accompanying spouse. When my contract in Kenya came to an end and we were looking for another posting with OXFAM, the absolute first priority was that there had to be a good chance that Linda would be able to find work, not necessarily as a pharmacist, but work nevertheless.

This dilemma summed up by some American friends we got to know in Senegal. Their mantra was that for a marriage to work it is important that both sides have stories to bring to the dinner table.

It doesn’t matter if one partner is a brain surgeon and the other a street sweeper. Being part of any organisation that is not directly connected to the other partner will provide stories, something new to bring to the table.

Fast forward forty years.

Careers completed, VSO done, house renovations more or less finished, the sunny uplands of retirement hove into view.

So what do we do now to make sure that we both have stories to bring to the dinner table?

Any minute now.

I ‘d almost forgotten how grey and dismal February can be.



But every day, in all sorts of ways, there are signs that the winter is in retreat.




Any day now, the daffodils will be out and we can start to look forward.

Dry January, be damned!


Well, thank goodness that’s over! Or, at least, nearly over.

There is not much to recommend January in the UK. The weather is usually cold and rainy, the sun, if it makes an appearance at all, will not be seen until 8.00 am and will have disappeared again by 4.00pm and, to top it all, you have to carry the guilt in your soul and the extra pounds around your waist brought about by the excesses of the Christmas period.

In order to compound the true dreadfulness of the first month of the year, some people go in for ‘Dry January,’ during which they eschew all thoughts of alcohol.


Even in a normal year, not everyone manages to maintain their resolve until February and, given the change of administration in Washington and the torrent of political excrement that flowed from it, no-one could be criticised for abandoning their New Year’s Resolution of abstinence this year.

Clearly for the drinks industry Dry January is very bad news. I saw a wine shop last week with a sign outside that read:-

Dry January? No problem.

We can help.

We have dry sherry, dry gin, dry martini…

Come on in!”


For us, 2106 was an expensive year, but at least it made a number of plumbers, electricians and builders as well as several DIY stores and paint suppliers very happy. Christmas with our offspring in the Lake District was a time for relaxation, good food, convivial togetherness and, I will admit, the consumption of rather a lot of alcohol.

The result was that much of the good work that we had done in losing weight following our sojourn in hotter climes was starting to be undone.


And since ‘actions have consequences’, we decided to declare ‘Austerity and Misery January.‘ (Actually I am not sure how much Linda would go along with the pronoun ‘we’ here, but let us not dwell on that!)

As we sat in the train coming home from the Lake District on Day 3 of our new misery and austerity regime, we reflected on the possible unintended consequence that our virtuous but rather impetuous, new resolution risked having. Since most of our friends have been known, from time to time, to partake of an alcoholic beverage or two, we realised that our unilateral decision to declare Misery and Austerity January meant, in effect, that we risked cutting ourselves off from society as we know it.

It became clear that further work was needed on the detailed wording of the new policy.

Somewhere between Preston and Manchester, as our Virgin Trains Pendolino hurtled south, we held an Extraordinary General Meeting. (I should point out that although there were only two of us at the meeting, we were quorate, as we are the sole Managing Partners of the Brighton branch this family.) There was only one item on the agenda – the alcohol ban.

After lengthy and detailed discussion, an amendment to the original Memorandum Of Understanding governing Austerity and Misery January was agreed.

The amendment allowed for the abandonment of the no-alcohol restriction an any occasion when we were ‘in company‘. There then needed to be further refinement and closer definition of the phrase ‘in company’. It was eventually clarified that ‘in company‘ meant ‘with friends, acquaintances and/or relatives or any other people who might, under whatever circumstances, become friends, acquaintances or indeed relatives.’

This protocol neatly dealt with the ‘company’ problem and also meant that a glass of wine with a meal in a restaurant was permissible. After all, who knows when you might meet someone in a restaurant who might become an ‘acquaintance’ or indeed be a long-lost relative? Surely that’s possible. Not likely, I admit, but certainly possible. I’m sure it happens all the time.

One member of the committee argued that although under the new protocol the alcohol ban, would ensure that the ‘Austerity‘ target could be achieved, the partial easing of the restrictions could be seen as weakening the ‘Misery‘ component.

After considerable further deliberation, that took us nearly as far as Birmingham, it was finally agreed that, for every day in January on which alcohol was consumed, one day of abstinence would have to be added on to the following month, which henceforth was to be known as ‘Pretty Bloody Dismal February.’

Roll on, St Valentine’s Day, I say!

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