Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A Careful Life

I have crafted a careful life for myself; fish in the morning, poultry or beef in the afternoon, dry food at night. Always something good in the bowl, and water from a fountain at the side, because nothing runs better than water and he knows how it fascinates me from all the bathroom sinks jumped in and gushing taps pawed at. He knows, in the squat, cough, rustle of the morning that I've rolled that way before, flicked fog off a mountain stream or two in a past life. As a lynx, or puma.

In any case it keeps the water fresh, so win-win, I'm impressed. Little fountain, little spring, blue bubbling donut in a brimless hat, paw to maw, dib-dab through the donut hole, lick lick, drippy-drop toe-suck. And if that sounds a little primitive then I'm sorry but it can't all be teacups and opposable thumbs. Left paw drinks, right paw scratches. Left for love, right for spite. We were all animals once, fending for ourselves. Killing things to stay alive, I've heard, and not  for sport.

I used to have milk on a standard saucer but, like most cats, I'm lactose intolerant. We  found that out the hard way. The fountain hums when the house is calm and I note that it runs on a hundred and ten volt circuit, converted by transformer to two-forty. How would I know that? Electrics. Words aren't really our thing, but cats do know electrics.

I know, I know. The last thing you'd expect.

Clunk-slam, click-slam means last call for supper, front door and back, so the first scratch of key on lock finds me diving from the bed (or pillow, which I often favour) quick as a pounce to find him, cock-eared and waiting at the foot of the stairs. It's become a sort of running joke and I play my part while he chuckles, throw a few shapes, tail flick, nose lift, trip-trap fence prance for my supper. None of it hurts. I'm cute as a cartoon. He shuffles into the kitchen and, from his haunches, gloops gravy-meat, pouch to bowl, fountain bubbling at the side and I purr-rub, blink-rub as he touches first my face then the plug, because it does get very, very warm indeed and that's how I know he loves me, because he'd risk the house aflame before my thirst. All for the sake of dual voltage.

If there's a criticism, it's that he drinks too much and retires too early, and that can catch me out, but my ears swivel, chiff-chaff at the slightest noise, even while asleep, which I believe was once a handy survival skill. I've crafted a careful life, of routine and the law of averages, the dependable nurture of a solid mammal.  Food. Water. Generally competent wiring. Fuses in the box. It's a great life, win-win. Yawn. A careful life. 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Dear Virgin Media

Dear Virgin Media Droid,

That was uncalled for. I know you're really a person, so sorry about saying 'droid'. There are levels of customer service in the world that can truly make one wince or gnaw the carpet in frustration. For the most part, though, not at Virgin Media. I'll say that much and hold my hands up. Now I'll put my hands back down to type, noticing, as I do so, all the time on them. The reason I have all this time on my hands is because there's been no internet in my house for ten hours, since about 9am this morning in fact. Tomorrow somebody will come and probably get it working again. Tomorrow afternoon, though; there were no morning appointments available. Shame, because then it'll have been thirty-six hours without internet, and who knows what will have happened?

So while I wait, I thought I'd pen a letter of complaint. I don't want it to be one of those ranty, shouty efforts though, because, let's face it, there's more terrible things going on in the world. In the great scheme of things it'd be churlish to get worked up about a few bits and bobs not working properly while there's poverty and famine and all sorts of celebrities suffering in the jungle.

I don't want to take the easy option and say derogatory things about Richard Branson either because, let's face it, a) you've heard it all before and b) You don't know him personally and you don't care. In any event, I actually think he's doing a pretty decent job. I bet you get cheeky winks of encouragement from him all the time, maybe the odd 'keep it up'. Not personally, but via some sort of company screensaver, or a holographic badge that changes when you turn it.

Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, being complimentary about the nature of telephone feedback from Virgin customer services. I can attest to this because I have plenty of experience in the field of phoning you up a lot. I genuinely feel, almost all the time, that I'm talking to a real person, that they exist in reasonable proximity to me geographically, and that they care I'm unhappy. I know you're a person too, perhaps a bit higher up, maybe even with their own desk and kettle. So, I'll tell you what, why don't you settle back, pour yourself some Elderberry tea, and let's both have a little chat?

It'd be all-too easy, I think you'll agree, for me to take some sort of consumerist hard-line and threaten to take my business elsewhere. After all, this has being going on the best part of two years now. I bet you hear that all the time, though. Even though you genuinely care, I bet you still moan inside, when you see yet another poorly-informed, grammatically deficient scrawl of semi-legible abuse land on your desktop. "What shall we do, Mr. Branson?" I bet you say in a sing-song voice, not to him directly but at his life-sized portrait on the wall. And then I bet you squeak back to yourself in a crude approximation of Richard's reply. "Send them a tenner-off voucher and say sorry."

I bet Sky don't do things like that. In fact I know they don't. Some of their customer service bods are downright rude, like they don't even care or something. It's not that we haven't been tempted by Sky, either. They're always popping round, waving futuristic looking devices in our face and offering 'deals' of one sort or another. Either that or buttonholing us outside Tesco. "Can I interest you in our movie package, sir? Try it free for a month?"

"No," I always say on these occasions. "I'm a Virgin Media customer." And when I say it like that they can see that I mean it, and they usually back off and ask me to put the leg of lamb down.

I'll let you into a secret, though. My wife loves Sky. We used to have Sky, but I cancelled it after their 20mb broadband package was mis-sold to me and, rather than drop me down to the free 2mb one (which was the only speed I could achieve anyway) they insisted on taking that extra £5.99 a month. Even when I suggested it would be financial suicide for them to carry on penalising me for six quid when I was spending £120 a month on all kinds of other multi-room goodness, they wouldn't relent. So, of course, at the first opportunity, I took all my business elsewhere - to you, in fact. That's exactly how grudgeworthy poor customer service can make people, and people like me can hold a grudge like pole dancers hold their pelvic floors. Forever, if necessary. I bet I'm not alone there, either.

Anyway, enough of my Sky woes. They were the bad old days, and it gives me an itchy face just to talk about it. You don't have to worry about it either, because your customer service is good, not particularly helpful, but good. So when I say, it'd be 'all-too easy' to take my business elsewhere, I mean the opposite, because that would entail giving it back to those greedy, soulless trolls at Sky and that's something that will never, ever do.

Still, there nonetheless exists a problem and, since I've started this letter now it only seems fair to talk about it. In essence, the problem is quite a serious one, mainly because of the lack of something being done about it. A consistently poor level of service has been provided by your company for about the last two years. During this time, it has become apparent that we have a less than satisfactory signal reception here at our address for the television, telephone and broadband services we pay you for each month. This has led and continues to lead to the following issues:-

- Interactive services unavailable / red button frequently unavailable.
- Channels subject to interference / artifacts, especially HD channels.
- Stuttering sound / popping noises / loss of audio.
- On demand programs frequently freezing or being unavailable.
- Navigation through menus on the TV via the remote control extremely slow and stuttery. Response times in excess of several minutes on some occasions.
- Random resetting of Set top box during programmes.
- V+ Recordings incomplete or corrupted.

- Frequent connection dropouts of between 10 mins and twenty-four hours.
- Loss of connection speed during peak hours and school holidays. Fluctuations in bandwidth and quality of connection.
- Wireless devices such as laptops and mobile phones being randomly disconnected or suffering from slow connection speed.
- Packet loss during online gaming, causing lag and stutter.

The broadband issues happen both on wireless devices and on the main wired computer. We recently received a new hub/router from Virgin after several days of particularly horrendous connection problems. One week on, it appears to have done nothing to alleviate the issues. In fact, in terms of the internet they are probably worse than ever. When I called Virgin this morning and we went through some investigative checking, I was told by Mike (lovely chap) that there was no reported fault in the area, the demand / capacity for bandwidth was at 50% or less and that no other modem users within the immediate vicinity had either reported problems or could be physically seen (via modem diagnostics) to have any issues. I'm pretty sure Sky wouldn't have done that. They'd have just traipsed out some tired company script.

On dozens of occasions during the past eighteen months, engineers have been called out to rectify similar, randomly-occurring problems at my address. They don't mind sharing their findings with me either, and I can tell you they are invariably as follows:-

Diagnosis of the set top box reveals that the Db signal ratio is below Virgin's acceptable guidelines. A console message helpfully suggests that the engineer "Remove Attenuation". But the engineer is well aware that there isn't any. The signal from outside is simply too weak.

The engineer then pays a visit to the external cabinet. This is not, as one might suspect, hundreds of miles away but a relatively short distance up the street. He opens the cabinet to discover something akin to an explosion in a spaghetti factory. Somewhere deep in this labyrinthine nest of snakes is our connection, the exact location of which remains inconstant. This is because, at some point in the recent past, a new subscriber has joined the network. Because there is competition for space within the cab, plugs get shifted around. Some plugs may even become 'accidentally' dislodged as I discovered in the summer, when our new neighbour's cable broadband was being installed and our own connection became mysteriously lost. After a passionate discussion with the two gentlemen performing the operation (who were fortunately within collar-grabbing distance of my front doorstep) and one hurried visit to the cab later, the connection was miraculously restored. At whose expense, I'm not entirely certain, and neither do I much care. It might be noted that these installation engineers are a separate team from the engineers who visit for fault calls. I wondered at one point if it might be possible they are in fact terrestrial saboteurs working for Sky, but eventually dismissed the idea after remembering to take my medication.

It should also be noted that this clandestine shifting around of user plugs within the cabinet is due to the fact that the option of using splitters has long since become redundant. Our own connection, I'm reliably informed, runs off five splitters before it reaches a terminal. That is an impressive amount of splitting by anyone's standards.

So it seems as clear to the technician as it is to me that the cabinet is at fault. The cabinet requires auditing. The number of redundant connections inside is doubtlessly high. I've made this suggestion to Virgin Media on a number of occasions over the years and so have the engineers themselves. After all, it is these poor misbegotten souls who are the real sufferers, continually subjected to a fate of scraped knuckles and the dismal job-dissatisfaction of knowing they can accomplish precisely nothing on these visits. "It's the cab," they say, sadly. "Nothing can be done until they sort it." And so, we all of us every day become more convinced that the solution lies out there in that box in the street, rising out of the tarmac like some graffitoed obelisk of hope. Ready to be one day absolved of guilt by the mysterious 'they'. All of us except you.

Sure, fixing it won't bring peace to the middle east, but it will bring something just as important; harmony to my household - a household that presently contains a told-you-so wife, ever more scathing of my provider choice, and teenage children who, in the absence of Facebook and Twitter, are faced increasingly with the cruel prospect of venturing 'outside' and contracting rickets from mobile phone masts.

Here's the other thing as well: on a semi-frequent basis we receive phone calls from other Virgin services such as cheap mobile phone contracts, or savings on our landline calls. Loans are available, also new HD packages, TIVO boxes and so on. "If only," I often opine on these occasions to the bewildered marketeer, "If only your infrastructure budget was as generous as your marketing one." I then go on to tell them how I can only dream of watching a HD movie uninterrupted by the snap, crackle and pop of your outmoded legacy technology. Can only lie awake thinking of a world in which 1000 gigabytes of recording space wouldn't be taken up by an incomplete recording of a snowstorm in the Himalayas that was meant to be Emmerdale. I'd love to be able to say 'yes' to some of those things. I'd quite like a Blackberry for a tenner a month, as it goes. Or a ten grand loan. But I can't, and you're the reason. I'm surprised they haven't been round themselves, to be honest. You've lost them quite a bit of commission. I keep them on the phone a long time too, especially if there's been no internet that night. And I always tell them the truth: "If I can't rely on the services you're failing to provide now, how can you expect me to sign up for new ones?"

Anyway, thanks for listening. I've tried to time this letter to the length of your afternoon break, which I'm hoping is 22 minutes long including toilet time. It's been a break for me too, a break from my wife's newly-minted, yet oft-repeated slogan "Sky's broadband may have been rubbish but at least it was reliable rubbish." And my kids, it's been a break from them too. I'm definitely thinking of sending them outside, but I fear it wouldn't be too long before social services got wind of their obvious 'at-risk' status, highlighted perhaps by the the fact that they're all dressed in sack-cloth and ashes, and two of them are holding signs. One that says 'The end is nigh' and another which simply reads: 'Epic Fail'.

So in some vain, romantic way, even if you don't do anything about the problem again, I'm hoping at least you'll put this letter on the wall next to Richard, a solitary note of poignancy amongst all the ranty, sweary ones that I know you print out and keep as well. I'll console myself with that thought, while spending the rest of the evening wondering how I can get out of having to speak to my family. They're all waiting behind me while I tap away here at the keyboard, arguing over who gets first go of 'solitaire' like a troop of otters squabbling over a fish-head.

The worst thing you could do in these circumstances would be to send me a standard letter, saying how sorry you were and offering some small concession in return. Because then I'd know you did that thing where you talk to Richard's portrait and pretend he answers you back. I'll know you've acted like those engineers who just wanted to get the job they'd been tasked with done and couldn't be bothered engaging with variables outside their remit. I'd rather you were all a bit more imaginative than that, like I've been. If you can't, then I'd rather you didn't reply at all, and I'll trudge reluctantly back to Sky, cap in hand, denunded of dignity, like some shameful junkie.

So, well. Perhaps we'll have an evening by the piano instead. Perhaps I'll go out and buy a piano. I've heard someone sells them in the local pub. Yes, that's it.


Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Genie

Back in the day you were allowed to buy fireworks for maybe a week or two before bonfire night and once November 5th was over, not thereafter. That was it, for at least another year. No cavalcade of rockets to bring in the New Year, (unless you were some sort of well-heeled Scrooge with a will of iron). No 'phlump, phlump mortar-round fzzt!' of roman candles to light up the birthday skies, unless you were lucky enough to be born after October 31st and before November 6th.

No, once it was all over, seen the androgynous dummy cremated, watched Catherine wheels spin freely, jerkily and not at all, had rockets blaze their trail across the sky and realised that the little pyramid-shaped one that you knew was going to be shit had not disappointed you. Once the serious concerns about how hot the windows were getting had subsided and once something had caught fire that wasn't supposed to and once an older neighbour had to go indoors with chest pains, it was done. Over.

Next day, we'd roam the foggy, post-inferno streets in a daze, like adolescent atrocity survivors, combing the cooling rubble for undischarged fireworks in order to break them open and call forth, from the powder they contained, what was commonly known as The 'Genie'.

'Place on ground.' Yeah, right.
The Genie was a flaky old demon. He didn't always make your wish come true (unless your wish was seared retinas and crop stubble eyelashes) sometimes he didn't even appear, would just give a damp sigh and fizzle off back to his lamp. He hated the rain, and we knew if it had been dry overnight there was a much better chance of a summoning.

Whenever he did appear, explosively and with an eyebrow-singeing 'whumpf!' well now, that was a time. The pile of powder had to be carefully set and a volunteer had to drop the match, someone who had perhaps thus far evaded a bonny night trophy scar - had not had a 'Little Demon' go off in the hand, not felt the molten whip of a toppled bottle rocket. Had not flayed their palm to the bone fishing out baked spuds from the embers of the fire. (I say 'baked', but of course this was much less al fresco Spud-U-Like and much more 'gnawing on starchy, smoke-tasting rocks'.)

As the Chosen One's trembling hands laid flame to the powdery kindling, chants to the Gods were muttered and a respectful path beaten, in case the Gods were wrathful. This swansong represented the greatest unity of Bonfire week. Whatever jealous claim you'd laid to those fireworks in their pristine tubular form was now forgotten as as the Swan Vesta bearer inched closer and you solemnly prayed that their piled-up innards would ignite. Here, a last chance to relive the magic, be privy to the cosmic lightshow, inhale something that smelt like old flintlock pistols and tasted of rotten egg.

We always forgot, somehow, how it would be. That these reanimated pyrotechnics were not bound to an orderly trajectory like their touch-papered counterparts. That their souls were jumbled up and when they cried out, it would be in chaos. If our guile and determination was to pay off, there would be fire and brimstone, a nuclear flash to rival any Tom Clancy novel. Saltpetre and singed nostrils. Afterimages to linger for a week or more; that's what would have made it all worthwhile. The months of canvassing for unwanted timber, the elaborate bonfire dens in which basic carpentry and sex education skills were dispensed with impunity, God willing.

This was the occult finale to the whole event, and, even though we'd used up two wishes each just getting him to appear, the genie symbolised the essence of rebirth. The dead risen, the phoenix from the flames, a closing ceremony to rival any olympic games and a big, whooshing cathartic send-off to whiten our hair and blacken our faces for the next time. As long as we didn't grow up and get old, and sit in nights and make children, there would always be a next time. And as long as the genie appeared to grant our final wish, there would always be a next time.