Monday, 22 June 2009

I Love Australia-speak

Just got off the phone to my bank in Australia and I would like to make a number of observations.

1. Whenever I talk to anyone in Oz my accent immediately becomes more Aussie. Phrases like 'righty-o' and 'no worries' propel themselves from my mouth with a frequency over which I have no control.

2. I love that the lady calls me by my first name. I answered the phone and she sounded vaguely like my mum, and being the middle of the night I was momentarily confused. She said 'hello, Vanessa, it's Colleen from the bank.' I love it! The informality of it all, it's wonderfully refreshing. By contrast, my daughter has been at her current school for three years and every time I speak to the secretary I say hello it's Vanessa Lawrey, and without fail she calls me Mrs Lawrey. In emails, I'll sign just Vanessa, but she still insists on Mrs Lawrey. I don't mind being Mrs. Lawrey, I love it (17th anniversary on Saturday just gone!) but I just reckon after 3 years they could call me Vanessa....

3. Colleen explained to me how the IBAN works, and she actually said, and verbatim I quote, you can be the smartarse at work tomorrow. Bloody brilliant! I just love the straightforwardness, no bullshit. It's refreshing!

Saturday, 20 June 2009


I joined Woking Speakers club a couple of months ago and pretty soon I'll be giving my first speech, known as the Icebreaker. For what it's worth, here 'tis. It's by no means the final draft and I probably won't say it verbatim, but I would be interested to know what you think of it.

Only Going Forward, ‘Cause We Can’t Find Reverse

We arrived at Heathrow at 8pm on the 6th of April 2002, me, my husband Peter and our little daughter of nearly 4, Catherine, two suitcases and five boxes. It had been in the cloying high thirties (that’s Celsius, by the way) in Abu Dhabi where we’d been staying with friends, but the lazy wind of England that greeted us on our emergence from Terminal 4 swept away the memory of being truly warm. Seven years later I have yet to get it back, but that’s another story.

Following the signs, we made our way to the bus which carried us to the car hire place. We shoehorned our possessions into the Renault Scenic and armed with nothing but the Lonely Planet Guide to England and the telephone number of the B&B I’d booked from Australia we set off for somewhere called Old Basing.

Needless to say we got lost. In fact, we got lost before we got out of the airport. It was dark, I was tired, all I can say is that it’s lucky we drive on the same side of the road otherwise we would have been toast before we made it onto the M4.

We managed to get out of Heathrow and onto the motorway. As I drove, my husband called the B&B. No answer. We tried again. No answer. I knew it was the right number, because I’d spoken to them from Oz, but the lack of a person on the other end of the line started tiny Hare Krishna bells ringing. We continued on our way, exited the motorway and the real fun began.

We came off the slip road and saw the sign to the road we wanted. We followed the road around for a bit and reached another sign bearing the road number we wanted but it pointed in two different directions! There were place names on the sign, but they meant nothing to us. We had a look at our trusty Lonely Planet guide, but it didn’t give us the detail we needed. We were stuck. We tried calling the B&B. No answer. Hmm. We took an educated (that is to say, wild) guess and picked a direction. Not far along the road we came across a snack van which by some miracle was still open. The guy had no clue where the place we wanted to go was, but he did know we were heading in the wrong direction. No problem. All that was required was a three-point turn: forward, reverse forward. I did the first bit fine, since that involved going forwards. Then I looked for reverse. The letter ‘R’ was there, plain as day on the gear stick, so I knew it had a reverse gear, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get the thing to go into reverse. We were blocking the road of course, and after struggling with the gear stick for some minutes a car pulled up behind us, just in case we weren’t stressed enough as it was. Just then, my husband remembered he had driven a car once that you had to pull the gear stick up and back to get it into reverse, perhaps I should try that? I duly did, the car obediently went into reverse gear and with much screeching and clunking of gears I got the car moving again.

We continued to follow road signs until we turned onto an unlit, narrow country lane. Trees launched themselves out of the darkness at us as we invaded their peace with our high beam. None of them could give us directions which by this time was proving to be something of a problem.

We drove for a while, stopping at various pubs along the way. They were much more helpful than trees. My husband would jump out of the car, the lazy wind would hurl itself into his vacant seat and I would freeze instantly. While I defrosted, I watched Peter chat with the people in the pub. This pattern repeated itself three or four times as we inched our way to our destination.

Eventually we found the road we wanted, but the B&B was nowhere in sight. We tried calling. No answer. The Hare Krishna bells had been replaced by Big Ben and the old boy was giving me a headache. There was a pub at the end of the road and the helpful folk inside assured us we were on the right road, although they didn’t know the B&B. We drove up and down the street, stopping at every second house asking the inhabitants if they knew where the B&B was. I went through the freeze-defrost-freeze cycle so many times it’s a miracle my fingers didn’t fall off. No one on the street had any idea where the B&B was. We were stuck.

I knew from my trusty Lonely Planet guide to England that the pubs close at 11pm, and if we didn’t find somewhere to stay by then we’d be sleeping in the car. We went back to The Fox to ask if they had any accommodation. They didn’t, but were very kind and called up another pub in Yateley which had some rooms, and more importantly was on the main road! They promised to stay open for us and we wearily made our way, nativity-like, to the inn. I barely remember the rest of that first night, I was so completely exhausted. I do remember a bed and getting horizontal at some point.

I’ve been asked many times why we came to England. I tell them we came for fun, adventure and really wild things. We’ve had that in spades. We’ve had so many difficult times, especially in that first year, but so many wonderful adventures made all the more fun by the people we’ve met along the way. Sometimes I’m asked if there’s ever been a time I regretted coming to England. I tell them yes, within about 10 minutes of arrival at Heathrow, but we made the decision to come here, just us three, two suitcases and five boxes, with a one-way ticket. Nothing like a one-way ticket to give you a bit of incentive to make it work! We came because we had, to steal a phrase, a dream, a dream to live and work somewhere different, to travel and experience a different way of life. We had talked so long and so often about making the dream come true that we knew if we didn’t take the opportunity when it arose we would always wish we had. So, with a one way ticket and a lot of determination, we went forward with our lives. We’re still moving forward. We now have three children and the little one who fell asleep in the back seat of the Renault Scenic is now 11 and speaks with a funny accent. We’ve figured out where reverse is, but we don’t have a lot of use for it.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

And Not a Moment Too Soon

PM to Unveil Voting Reform Plan, the headline launched itself from the screen and affixed itself to my gaze. Hooray, my brain celebrated, not a moment too soon! If you think my previous post was a rant on the political system in this country, it was nothing compared to what I was yelling about over dinner, in the car, to anyone within hearing range for the last few days. It's taken me a while to compose my thoughts into a coherent posting, and reader will have to judge for themselves, but I'm pretty certain I haven't finished yet.

I said in my last post "at least I can trust the electoral process that gets them into office" but after Sunday's result at the European elections, I'm starting to wonder if I really can. The BNP managed to get not one, but TWO seats in the EU parliament. Needless to say there's pretty much universal dismay at this, but really there's only the electoral system to blame.

The BNP have managed to represent themselves as a mainstream party, but the fact is the majority of people did not vote for them. The majority of people didn't vote at all. I'm not the only person to have noticed this, so why, oh why, isn't the principle of compulsory voting a key pillar of the government's review of the voting system (this article describes the options under consideration)? First past the post would work, the alternative vote system, the version of proportional voting used in Northern Ireland and Scotland, all of these options would be fair if only 100% of the electorate voted!

I've heard only one arguement against compulsory voting. It's an infringment of your democrating right not to vote if you don't want to. This is the biggest load of do-do (with respect) for one simple reason. If you expect to have the right, you're obliged to exercise it for the good of your society. If you don't, you're no better than a hermit or a prisoner or anyone else who opts out of society. Contribute, for goodness sake! Don't expect to get all the benefits without putting some effort in! At least if 100% of the electorate votes, you know the candiate with the most votes is the one most people voted for and the electorate will really get the government they deserve.

I also believe in a non-compulsory system those that don't vote are those that really need to vote. They are the less well-educated, the disenfranchised, low-earners. They don't see how politics affects them because they've never had it explained to them, yet they are the most adversely affected when people who don't care about them get elected. The candidates don't care about the opinions of those who didn't vote because they didn't vote, so they're not going to fight for their issues.

Finally, a compulsory system is more democratic because it ensures governments are at all times held accountable to the elecotrate. In the US, they try to limit the power of the president by ensuring he can't serve more than two terms. This takes away the democratic right of the electorate to vote in the candidate they want! How ridiculous for the so-called Land of the Free. In the UK, there has only been one change of governement in the last 30 years. Until 1997 Conservatives had been in power for 18 years and now we've had 12 years of Labor. There may well be elections every 4 years, but the system means we get the same pollys year after year after year.

By way of comparison, Australia has a compulsory electoral system with preferrential voting and proportional representation. Voters can chose whether to vote for a party or individual candiates. They can decide where their preferences should go. The Lower House (equivalent to the Commons) is elected every 4 years, half the Senate (or House of Lords) every 6 years. The system may be more complex, but it's widely recognised as being one of the fairest and most representative systems in the world. Quite apart from elections being a lot more interesting, the result is a national government that most people voted for.

Aussies complain just as much about untrustworthy politicians as anyone else, but at least we all voted for them ;-)

Dearest reader, thank you so much for reading my latest babblings all the way to the end. I'm happy to have got all this off my chest, but I would really be interested in your comments on this. Am I just being Aussie-centric, or do my arguements strike a chord? Did you vote this time? If you didn't, please vote next time!

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Situations Vacant - Politician, immediate start

Thursday 4th June 2009. Election Day for the European Parliament, and county elections in some areas as well. The expenses scandal ensured the Labour party was abandoned pretty much everywhere, but personally I don't see why. Politicians. They're all the same.

The same as everybody else.

The scandal has revealed our politicians are no different from any other corporate salaryman who takes a sickie not because he's ill, but because he's entitled to 5 sick days per year and by golly he's going to take them all. Or my hubby, who printed off a 4-sheet document for my personal use. The pollys are entitled to claim and claim they did. Their error lies in the nature of many of the claims. Considering politicians live and breathe on public opinion, they really didn't think much about it when the claimed for moat cleaning, servants quarters or secretarial servces provided by one's sister. If they'd only thought about it for a moment they would have seen that although the claims might have been legitamate, they look bad and that's not good.

Many politicians have been embarrassed, a significant number have either been sacked or resigned, and the whole thing may yet bring down Mr Brown's government. However, the most significant casualty of the entire sorry affair has to be public confidence in the political system. Voter turnout this time was about 44%, down from 75% (-ish) in the last election, and when I went to vote nearly everyone I saw on my way to and inside the polling station were of retirement age. That may just be a feature of the time I voted, but I worried that young people would not vote out of apathy. They're all crooks, no point in voting, they'll say.

I love voting. Love it. I get a little frisson of excitement whenever I vote. I read all the leaflets pushed through my letterbox by devoted supporters. Most end up in the bin, because I've already decided who I'm going to vote for, but I read the information anyway, just in case they have a policy point that might change my mind. I'm really pleased to be eligible to vote in the UK and European elections. Why? Simple. Because I am one of a distressingly small minority of people in the world who can make her voice heard in free and fair elections, free from the threat of violence or intimidation. I can vote knowing my vote won't be tampered with. I may not be able to trust the politicians, but at least I can trust the electoral process that gets them into office.

There's a saying that anyone who wants to be a politician should be immediately disqualified from doing so, and those who least want positions of leadership or power are those best suited to have it foisted upon them. I hope there are still people who want to be politicians for the right reasons. There must be politicians who have maintained their honesty and integrity throughout.

I hope I voted for one.