Archive: 2009 January

The other day I learnt from my brother that the graphic design company The Designers Republic went out of business earlier this month.

My interest in graphic design is not particularly heavy. But the interest I do have in it has all stemmed from my exposure to the work of The Designers Republic. Their work was usually bold and eye-catching; unconventional and experimental. It is exactly the sort of thing I appreciate in all forms of art. They were sometimes uncompromisingly experimental, yet they made it make sense. Their designs were often beautiful and pleasing.

Pulp logo My first exposure to the work of The Designers Republic was probably the elements of Pulp’s visual identity, which tDR produced when the band was at the height of its powers. Like Pulp, The Designers Republic was proud of its Sheffield roots and would often reference the area in its work.

Later, I would come across The Designers Republic again when it created the visual atmosphere for the wipEout series of futuristic racing games. wip3out in particular was exquisitely presented. Even though “futuristic” design typically dates horrendously, ten years on I think wip3out stands the test of time fairly well. To this day it remains my favourite video game ever.

This video below contains the intro sequence to wip3out, introducing the player to the industrial urban world of 2116 and the (anti-gravity) F7200 Race League. There are also striking corporate identities for each of the fictitious teams. There follows a spot of gameplay — a short eliminator round at the Mega Mall circuit — which shows just how important The Designers Republic’s influence was to the game.

An archived version of the wip3out website, also designed by tDR, is still available to browse.

The earlier wipEout games do not stand the test of time quite so well. Perhaps because it used very similar designs throughout the early-to-mid 1990s, most notably for the band Pop Will Eat Itself, the style seems firmly rooted in the 1990s.

My exposure to tDR’s work increased when became interested in electronic music, particularly the output of Warp Records. Warp’s striking visual identity was one of the things that attracted me to the label, and it was a perfect fit for the experimental, forward-looking techno music that Warp used to specialise in.

Like tDR, Warp has its roots in Sheffield, so the original relationship was one of expediency. But the fit was so good that in a lot of ways Warp and tDR are inseparably intertwined in the eyes of some. But in later years, tDR designed very few record sleeves for Warp at all.

Autechre - Quaristice In fact, the only one from recent years that I can think of is the artwork for Autechre’s Quaristice, which was recently featured in the excellent music artwork blog Sleevage. The extravagant brushed steel limited edition of Quaristice was probably the last tDR-designed product that I bought. It is a truly exquisite piece of work. I have my own photos of it, but the photographs on Sleevage give a much better idea of the stunning quality of it.

But it was difficult to escape the fact that tDR was producing less and less for one of its most iconic clients. In fact, I had knowingly seen hardly any tDR work at all over the past few years, and a lot of people came to see tDR as lazy. Sometimes their work was a bit too minimalist, to a cheeky extent (see, for instance, the track-by-track artwork for Quaristice).

But a number of their designs were very striking, and I own a lot of t-shirts that were designed by tDR. Since being exposed to their work I have made a conscious effort to make anything I design (like this blog) look good. For a brief period of my life, I even seriously considered going into graphic design as a career (before concluding that I probably wouldn’t be any good at it).

Even though The Designers Republic closed down this month, its influence will always be felt. tDR spawned a million copycats, and the course of artwork related to electronic music in particular has been changed forever by tDR.

Anyway, many of tDR’s best designers over the years have moved on (see, for instance, Universal Everything or Build). And tDR’s founder, Ian Anderson, has pledged that it will return in some form or another. The Designers Republic is dead, long live The Designers Republic indeed.

Over the years, tDR has produced some of my favourite album artwork. I’ve gathered some of them below the fold.

Click for more »

Scottish politics became exciting and sexy yesterday. Sexy as politics goes anyway. The excitement is over the fact that the SNP have failed to persuade the Scottish Parliament to back its budget. Cue lots of finger pointing.

It’s the sort of thing that makes members of the public disdainful of politicians. I chose to listen to Radio Scotland for a short while following the budget vote. The first set of text messages to be read out, around 15 minutes after the vote had taken place, was practically an encyclopaedia of lazy Scottish political commentary. All the old chestnuts were wheeled out. One person blamed proportional representation. Another suggested getting rid of the Scottish Parliament altogether. A few more had decided never to vote for the Greens again.

But I can’t find it in me to blame the Greens for this one at all. Not remotely. Maybe I am allowing the fact that I am hugely in favour of their insulation scheme cloud my judgement. It is, after all, the only vaguely sensible thing I can remember hearing pass through a politician’s lips in years. That’s something to get passionate about.

But in seriousness, I struggle to see how the Greens can possibly be blamed for this. Their policy has been well-established. It was put on the table months ago. And it seems like a very sensible policy at that. The Greens’ proposal took up just £100 million of a £33 billion budget — just a third of a percent. It’s amazing to think that the SNP were unable to properly accommodate the Greens’ demands until literally the last minute. It’s even more incredible when you consider that the SNP are supposed to be broadly in favour of the scheme!

This all seems like sheer carelessness on the SNP’s part. Going by Patrick Harvie’s media appearances, his chief concern was not the fact that the SNP were unwilling to stump up the full £100 million. In this supposedly consensual Parliament, politicians should expect to make compromises. It may well be that the Greens would have taken what John Swinney put on the table were the Greens treated with a modicum of respect, with negotiations conducted properly. But the Green co-convener seemed quite livid at the apparently haphazard way the SNP conducted the discussions.

If half of what Patrick Harvie says about last-minute phone calls and faxes being delivered halfway through John Swinney’s speech is true, it makes the SNP look like an organisational basket case. Given that negotiations have been going on for weeks — months, even — it seems awfully careless for the SNP to sleep in like this. It’s hardly the slick operation that skilfully won the 2007 election.

It’s no surprise that the Greens should feel insulted. It looks like they were totally taken for granted — fobbed off with a half-baked scheme, and communicated to practically in grunts. The SNP must have calculated that they could get away with taking the Greens for granted. They might have got away with it when Robin Harper was in charge. Yesterday the Greens stood up for themselves, and rightly so.

It wouldn’t surprise me now if the new budget goes through unanimously, as Jeff suggests it might. I interpret the events of yesterday as a warning to SNP not to be too arrogant and that they can’t take the Parliament for granted. But politicians will surely know that they can’t take this game too far.

It won’t be popular with the public if we end up without a budget and — worse — having to trudge out to vote for this shower again. I’m sure every politician in Holyrood knows that. Nor, surely, can the parties really afford all the campaigning that would be involved. So they will be prepared to avoid that outcome. In the aftermath of yesterday’s events, all of the parties appear to be more willing to play ball.

That’s the risk the Greens now face though. Either Labour or the Lib Dems — or both — might like to make some political capital out of this by making some compromises so that they can go around the place saying they saved Scotland’s public spending. In that case, the SNP really would be able to take the Greens’ votes for granted.

In that case, the Greens will look like they have made a major strategic error here. But I still think they did the right thing yesterday. The Greens may not have been very pragmatic, but their principled stance is exactly what we need more of in politics.

Years ago, this blog had a little button on it. Where today you see little logos for Amnesty International and No2ID, there used to be a button that said “I believe in the BBC”. It was to back this campaign, which was one of the things that got me hooked on blogging. I couldn’t believe how much of a stitch-up the Hutton Report seemed, and I wanted to stand up for what was the best broadcaster in the UK.

Some time during the intervening five years I removed the button from my blog. I had decided that I actually don’t really believe in the BBC. Of course, over time I have become more and more disillusioned with the mainstream media in general, and my opinion of the BBC has fallen south along with the rest of the mainstream media.

But I have found myself becoming particularly frustrated with the BBC’s apparent fear of its own shadow. It is pretty clear that this neurotic period of the BBC’s history began with the Hutton Report, and has been more recently exacerbated by a never-ending stream of overblown tabloid-generated nowtrage.

Of course, the lame tabloid stone-throwing is practically as old as the BBC itself. The difference is that after the Hutton Report, the BBC has appeared to actually believe that the tabloids have a point. What we needed after Hutton was a BBC that stood its ground and believed in its principles. Instead, it has become a blundering, self-loathing embarrassment; a stumbling colossus.

Nowadays, if a tabloid kicks up a bit of a fuss over, say, a bit of post-watershed swearing, the BBC doesn’t roll its eyes and ignore it like the majority of its viewers and listeners do. Instead, it trumps the tabloids, immediately making it the top story in all of its bulletins.

BBC News journalists then begin conducting fierce two-ways with BBC managers, and viewers are treated to a bizarre self-flagellation session lasting several days. The BBC sternly questions the BBC about its own outrageous conduct. After several days or even weeks have passed it quietly snaps out of it — only for another scandal to come along and the whole cycle begins again.

Take the television fakery scandals that engulfed the BBC a couple of years ago. Somehow, the fact that Blue Peter changed the name of a cat became the most shocking thing ever and threatened the very future of the BBC. I knew that because the BBC itself kept on saying so.

The fact that the commercial broadcasters had spent the previous few years building an entire genre of programming — the late night phone-in quiz programme — that was dedicated to deviously extracting cash from its viewers got swept under the carpet. Everybody was too busy watching the BBC break down in what you might call a Cookie crumble.

It was right that the BBC made changes following the scandals. But the difference in approach between the commercial broadcasters and the BBC was huge. Premium rate competitions were quick to make a return on commercial channels, with a bit more small print. But on the BBC, to this day the world “competition” is practically a swear word. Pre-recorded radio programmes are littered with apologies and warnings about the fact. The BBC’s paranoid fear of another scandal is getting in the way of its programming.

Then there is the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brandwagon, when the BBC inexplicably allowed a rather rude phone call dominate the news agenda for several days. While the economy was actually collapsing, the BBC almost willed itself on to implosion. When a bold BBC should have been responsibly reporting important news (which there was plenty of), instead the nervy BBC we’ve got occupied itself by poking its navel.

I found the BBC’s reaction quite seriously worrying. Even though the phone calls were a bit over the line, the reaction was completely out of proportion. And it has the potential to set a worrying trend, for the reasons Charlie Brooker pointed out.

The BBC is surely supposed to be there to do things that commercial broadcasters are either unable or unwilling to do. By definition, this means making challenging programming — programming that might not meet with popular approval. And in comedy in particular, that means pushing the boundaries.

The BBC’s decision to wave the white flag over the Russell Brand hoo-ha was basically a conscious decision to undermine the principles by which the BBC is supposed to exist. It follows that if the BBC believes it shouldn’t make distinctive comedy programming, why should it make distinctive programming at all?

The result is that we now have a BBC which is paralysed by a fear of criticism. It has become too self-conscious, and when the spotlight is on it nervously stumbles around. It’s not exactly the BBC we’re all supposed to be proud of.

The latest scandal to hit the BBC, over the DEC’s Gaza appeal broadcast, exhibits the BBC’s fear well. Knowing that the Israel–Palestine issue is so thorny, particularly given the right wing’s frequent criticism of the BBC’s coverage, it was caught like a rabbit in the headlights.

The first of the justifications given by Mark Thompson for choosing not to broadcast the appeal is that aid might not be delivered properly. That would be fair enough. It would be strange, though, if the BBC knew better about this than the DEC, a group comprising of thirteen charities dedicated to delivering aid properly.

The other (“more fundamental”) justification was the fear that the BBC might be seen to be impartial. It’s interesting to note that Mark Thompson never says that broadcasting the appeal actually would undermine the BBC’s impartiality. He is just concerned about the perception.

The BBC is perfectly entitled to decline to broadcast a DEC appeal. But the fact that it has allowed its fear of the public’s reaction to get in the way is worrying. It is yet another sign that the BBC is no longer prepared to be the bold public service broadcaster it’s supposed to be. And, of course, it brought a fresh round of awkward interviews between BBC journalists and BBC bosses.

It all makes for uncomfortable viewing and listening. It is clear that just now the BBC has very little belief in itself. So how should license fee payers be expected to believe in it?

The beginning of last week saw the launches of three more 2009 Formula 1 cars.

Williams FW31

Wow, 31. Williams have been around for a long time now, but while their heritage can almost match that of Ferrari or McLaren, their results of late have been massively disappointing. Could 2009 be the year they make a comeback?

In one sense, it is feasible that Williams will have a strong season. They have taken a radical route with KERS, and are the only team to have opted for a flywheel-based KERS rather than an electrical KERS. Their system sounds mightily impressive, as Grandprix.com outlined last week. If it works, Williams could be onto something here. But is there a reason why the other teams have avoided the flywheel route?

Chassis-wise, the general consensus appears to be that the Williams is a good-looking car. I am not so sure. I think the dark colour scheme means that some of the uglier elements are well-hidden. Of course, the Williams won’t be racing in the “interim” livery which was revealed last week, so we’ll have to wait and see on that front.

To me, the sidepods look rather bulky. Meanwhile, Williams have a big and chunky front nose. Despite the weird and wonderful shapes exhibited by the FW31, nothing could have prepared us for the…

Renault R29

There is no getting away from it: the Renault’s nose cone is certainly an interesting shape. At last, Robert Kubica has a rival in the “biggest nose in F1″ competition. It is not so much the width or size of the nose which is intriguing. The almost dogmatically straight edges are almost the polar opposite of what we have come to expect from a super-sculpted F1 chassis. It’s less of a nose cone and more of a nose breeze block.

The front wing is disappointingly plain looking. But this is made up by the endplates, which are purposeful-looking scoops which I find visually pleasing. Equally intriguing is the way the rear suspension appears to be completely engulfed by the chassis. I don’t think I’ve seen something like that before. Is this to accommodate the KERS, or is it for aerodynamic reasons?

Livery-wise, the fact that blue has taken a back seat is a relief, but there is no doubt that the designers have gone totally overboard on the orange. Red, orange and yellow ought to be complementary colours, but the designers have arranged them in a stripy cacophony. It is a brash and noisy scheme the like of which is normally only seen on a Matt Bishop shirt.

I suppose that is at least one good side of ING’s woes — Renault won’t have to shoehorn the ING corporate colours onto their livery. Mind you, Renault might not even be around by then if the rumour mill is anything to go by.

BMW F1.09

The BMW F1.09 has been widely derided for its ugliness. It is true to say that it is not the nicest-looking car to have been unveiled this year.

Much of that is down to the boxy front wing, which does not look much better since it was originally tested all those months ago. As for the rest of the chassis, everything from the sidepods back looks like it has been crumpled up a bit. Are the FIA sure the crash test went okay?

To my untrained eye, it looks as though the philosophy of the BMW car has been to not even bother with any fancy flick-ups (note the absence of anything like the elaborate wing mirror stands, and not even a token bargeboard). Instead, the chassis is now littered with alien-looking indents, rivulets, lumps and bumps.

Even though at eye level there is no doubt the F1.09 has been hit with the ugly stick, this BMW car looks absolutely stunning from above in my view. Simple, slender beauty.

The most interesting thing about the BMW launch, however, was the revelation that they might not run with KERS at Melbourne. It was widely thought that BMW had progressed very well with their KERS and that the team was confident in its system. Not so, it seems. They may be further forward than other teams, but it is still very much up in the air.

Now serious questions must be asked about the FIA’s management of the introduction of KERS. This has been a complete hash-up from beginning to end.

Overall

We have now seen six of the 2009 Formula 1 cars. Of the teams still to launch, Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso will both use the same chassis. Apparently it’s radical, and won’t launch until late February. Force India are busy connecting square-shaped McLaren parts into round Force India holes. And Honda are still trying to find someone to buy them.

It is apparent that big, chunky noses are in. All three of the cars launched this week sport wide and square-ish noses. And come to think of it, the Ferrari and McLaren noses are pretty wide too. Only Toyota have retained a 2008-style narrow nose, and I have to say the more I think about it the more Toyota seem doomed. I could be wrong though! I’m no aero expert…

Apologies for the lack of posts here recently. I have been occupied by other things, and the fact that it is the off-season in F1 at the moment makes it easy to choose this blog to put on the back burner.

I did not even get round to writing everything I wanted to write about the 2008 season. But it looks like the 2009 season has already begun as we have had three car launches already, so there is no point in looking back now. Instead, I will post some brief thoughts on the new cars which have been launched so far.

Ferrari F60

First out of the box was Ferrari. My initial impression was that the F60 is a much better-looking car than I had anticipated. It is certainly much more attractive than the interim BMW car we had already seen.

The car appears to have an elongated front nose, particularly when compared with the Toyota TF109, as this picture on the Sidepodcast drop.io site demonstrates. What’s also notable is the way the sidepod appears to have been moved back in order to create a “blind spot” where aerodynamic devices can go. Ferrari have constructed a convoluted-looking rear view mirror stand, no doubt to maximise the aerodynamic benefits.

A head-on view of the car most clearly demonstrates how radical the changes to the front and rear wings are. The F60′s front wing is a rather brutish looking thing, although it was a bit more refined than I was expecting it to be.

Of note is the fact that the F60 failed on its first outing. Apparently a part fell off the car. The car was fitted with KERS, but it’s pretty clear the team feel they’re behind on development and are none-too-happy on BMW’s insistence to run with KERS. Launching early gives the Ferrari team more time to “debug”, but it’s an inauspicious start.

The F60′s dedicated website has plenty of pictures and video.

Toyota TF109

Next up was Toyota, whose TF109 is pretty basic-looking compared to the Ferrari. The nose cone appears to sit rather high up compared to the Ferrari’s, giving the Toyota a gappy look from the front. On a side-on view, the Toyota is disappointingly basic-looking. Clive over at F1 Insight said, “If there is going to be a norm for the look of this season’s cars, the Toyota must surely be it.” It must be said, it really looks like they didn’t try very hard, and there is nothing novel here — certainly not on the level of Ferrari’s wing mirrors for instance.

Toyota do not even have KERS up their sleeve. They are even more ambivalent about it than Ferrari are, and will not even attempt to race with it until midway through the season. They are even talking about it being an advantage to run without KERS. We will see about that. But the reluctance to even investigate it puzzles me. This smacks of a total lack of ambition, especially for a group of people who are supposed to like an engineering challenge and who are meant to be looking to maximise every opportunity.

It almost goes to prove Max Mosley’s point that F1 teams have become obsessed with things like trimming weight off their cars rather than genuinely innovating. Whether you agree with the implementation of KERS or not, it must be said that Toyota’s approach is totally baffling and defeatist. It demonstrates a deep-rooted conservatism of the sort we have come to expect from Toyota. I may have to eat humble pie later on, but I suspect Toyota are doomed this season.

At least they gave us a laugh with their really odd “trailer”. Someone really should have pointed out that drivers do not make good actors. I’m still recovering from the way Jarno Trulli says “YEAH”. If you can bear to see more, here is the website dedicated to the TF109 “premiere”.

McLaren MP4-24

The third car to launch was the new McLaren. I greatly anticipated this as it is very rare for McLaren to produce an ugly-looking car. They have come up with the goods as always, and I love the look of it already.

What strikes me the most about the McLaren MP4-24 is the nose cone, which is rather rounded, almost cylindrical-looking. It’s almost like the kind of nose cone which would have been commonplace on F1 cars in the mid-1990s, but the like of which hasn’t been seen on an F1 car for a while. When people talked about the new aerodynamics bringing back the look of the 1990s, I don’t think people anticipated it spilling over from the wings onto the rest of the bodywork like this.

The front wing also looks very well refined already. It looks like the team has given a lot of attention to the front end of the car, with the other teams having brought out rather more conservative-looking efforts. Images can be found on the McLaren website.

The big news of the event was Ron Dennis’s announcement that he would be standing down as McLaren CEO to take on another role. Inevitably, Martin Whitmarsh takes his place.

But although certain MSM outlets have made this out to be a bombshell, and even that it might be a blow to Lewis Hamilton (as if Martin Whitmarsh hates him?!), it has to be said that it wasn’t exactly completely unexpected news. It’s been an open secret for a long time that Ron Dennis has been planning on moving aside for at least a few years now. If anything, the surprise is that he did not stand down sooner, but perhaps he feared that announcing it sooner would have dampened Lewis Hamilton’s championship celebrations.

Nevertheless, one should pay tribute to Ron Dennis, who has been an immensely successful leader of the McLaren Formula 1 team. I am sure that, with Martin Whitmarsh in charge, McLaren is in safe hands for the future.

Final thoughts

One thing that intrigues me about all of these launches is that we have seen hardly images of the rear of the cars. Are they that ugly-looking that none of the teams want them in their publicity shots?

What surprises me the most about the new cars is that they don’t actually look all that different to what we’ve come to expect an F1 car to look like. Sure, the rear wing looks odd, but I have got used to it already. But we don’t have anything that looks like a lower-formula car — these cars still look like Formula 1, which is good.

This week we’ve got launches from Williams, Renault and BMW to look forward to. It will be interesting to see if these teams have any surprises in store.

Having laid into the nasty side of human nature a few days ago, it is only fair that I redress the balance when I am reminded of the good side of people.

When I wrote about my (un)employment situation I wasn’t expecting to get such long responses from people offering advice. Not only did I get some great comments to the post, but I also got a couple of emails which I wasn’t expecting.

The fact that people took the time to write to me was a reminder of the nicer side of human nature. Thanks to all of you! :)

First of all, apologies to anyone who became sick of Woolworths when I published eight posts in a row about it. As you will have seen, “normal” service is on its way to resumption. Anyway, it was good to get it all off my chest, and is at least cheaper than seeing a therapist.

When I started writing this series, I thought I was going to end up with four posts. I ended up writing nine posts, and almost 10,000 words. I have a few final thoughts before I shut up about the subject for good.

A lot of people who have spoken to me about Woolworths have blamed the credit crunch and / or the government for the demise of Woolworths. As my posts have outlined, I think that is a gross simplification of the matter. If you look at the archives of newspapers you can see that people have seen this coming for a while, credit crunch or no credit crunch.

No doubt the staggering deterioration in the economy from October onwards accelerated things a lot. But there were fundamental problems with Woolworths, partly because it was burdened by almost 100 years of history which made it difficult to evolve.

A lot of people said they felt sorry for the way “they” were treating us. I couldn’t find it in myself to be angry (although that was admittedly made easier by the fact that I was planning on leaving anyway). No-one planned on the business failing. As for the administrators, it is their job to recover as much money from the situation as possible. That can mean being pretty ruthless and it cannot be an easy situation to manage.

A lot of customers asked me questions as though I had some kind of magical insider knowledge. When I said I didn’t know what was happening some people would say they thought I was being treated badly. I usually said, “I don’t think they even know what’s happening themselves.” I don’t know if they did know, but I imagine events were pretty fast-moving.

The reality was that I would have had a much better idea of what was happening if I stayed at home and watched the news. Lots of customers would come in and talk about what they had heard on the news, probably not even realising that we were totally unaware of whatever development had come about. It was unfortunate that things happened that way, but I doubt it can be helped.

The more I researched the history of Woolworths for this series of posts, the more I came to the conclusion that it was actually a fundamentally good business — or at least had the potential to be a good business. But throughout its history it has been maltreated in various ways and it ended up battered and bruised, limping on until finally keeling over this year.

For instance, the British arm of Woolworths was always more successful than its American parent. But until 1982 it sent most of its profits back to America. The Kingfisher years were, if anything, even worse.

Kingfisher failed to find an identity for itself and Woolworths was demerged in 2001. Under Kingfisher the stores had begun to crumble. Worst of all, just before the demerger Kingfisher sold all of Woolworths’s property, meaning that the new company had to lease it all back from landlords. Woolworths had crippling rent bills for the rest of its life. Woolworths still had huge takings, but it was brought down by massive overheads.

Arguably, the main beneficiary of the situation was B&Q. Kingfisher, rich having sold all of the Woolies property, continues to own B&Q to this day. But it was Woolworths which originally had the foresight to buy B&Q.

Home improvement and DIY was a big thing for Woolworths by the 1980s, as you can see in this advert from 1980. The products featured are almost entirely DIY-oriented.

Certain that DIY was a growth area, then-chairman of Woolworths Geoffrey Rogers bought the then-fledgling B&Q. The DIY offering in Woolworths was watered down to make way for B&Q. This might be one major reason why so many people cite Wilkinson as the store that replaced Woolworths.

Although Woolies appeared to have lost its way in the later years, there’s no doubt that most people had a real affection for the store. I saw lots of great blog posts during the final few weeks:

And some nice nostalgic offerings from more major news outlets:

Now, sadly, the shutter is down for good.

It's now staying shut

Being of a (small ‘l’) liberal persuasion, I generally dislike the idea of governments sticking their noses into what goes on in your house. Indeed, I lean towards smaller government in general. But there is one nice proposed bit of government intervention that I’m struggling to oppose.

The Greens seem set to use their status as potential kingmakers within the Scottish Parliament in the current budget negotiations to persuade the Scottish Government to adopt their policy of providing free insulation to all of Scotland’s homes. I raised my eyebrows when I first heard about it, thinking it was bound to be expensive. But it’s not really. The scheme would cost £100 million, which is pocket money compared to the £33 billion budget that the Scottish Government has at its disposal.

As such, I’m finding it impossible to see the downside. Everyone in the country gets their homes insulated for free. This allows us all to turn the heating down, with the dual effect of saving us money in the long run and reducing energy consumption (and climate change). Then there are the health benefits involved in having a warm home. It will also provide some jobs in construction at a time when there is slack in that sector — a good bit of Keynesian medicine at just the right time.

Best of all, the scheme is based on a successful experiment that has already taken place in Kirklees, so we know it can be done. It seems like a win–win situation all round. The scheme is relatively inexpensive and the money will soon enough be recovered in the saving in energy bills. It’s difficult to see how it could go badly wrong.

I write about this because it’s a long time since I’ve been so heavily in favour of anything any political party has said. I had rather lost my faith in political parties, and had become jaded with the whole political process. What’s surprising is that it’s the Greens who have grabbed my attention with this excellent policy. Even more surprising is that it’s a policy that involves a degree of extra government intervention. I’ve got to take my hat off to the Greens for managing to get me applauding a policy like this. It gives me a warm feeling, which is quite appropriate.

The Greens have a campaign website called Warm Scotland where the policy is explained in more detail. See also this blog post at Two Doctors. I hope the scheme gets the go-ahead.

I see that the BBC’s iPM blog is asking for the human stories behind the current unemployment figures. Well, I am a human face of two recent news stories.

As readers are no doubt sick of reading by now, one of those stories was the loss of around 27,000 jobs at Woolworths. The other is the shortage of graduate-level jobs.

I graduated last summer. I didn’t have a job to walk into straight away because I wanted to take time to think about my future plans. Plus, the economy seemed bad enough at the time, and I thought maybe things would improve a bit later down the line. Now I have more or less decided what sort of work I would like to do, but of course the economy has deteriorated further and the jobs simply aren’t there.

The thing is, I’m not the only one. I can’t think of anyone who was in the same school year as me and has found a graduate-level job. I haven’t kept in touch with many people from university, but those I have heard from are either working in part-time retail jobs or more-or-less volunteering. I am still in touch with a lot of people from school, and no-one I know who was in the same year as me has found a job yet. I’m sure there are loads of people of my age who have found a decent job — I just don’t know any of them.

Many are doing five year courses anyway so are still studying. One or two have opted to go onto further study, while the rest of us are still searching for employment. And I’m not talking about people who got thirds from Shatsborough Poly by any means. I know someone who got a first at St Andrews University and is currently working in a shop.

A few months ago I still had the luxury of working in a shop. Of course, staying on at Woolies was never my long-term goal. It would have been useful as a back-up plan though. Not exactly a plan B, but maybe a plan C. As it stands, I’m still waiting for something to turn up in the realm of plan A, I need to wait and see with plan B, and plan C has totally fallen through already. For now, I’m onto plan D — D for “dole”.

So the news that there is a shortage of graduate places is not exactly news to me. I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve shared that experience with my acquaintances. What is really worrying is that a situation that was bad for the class of 2008 looks set to become even worse in 2009, with no sign of a recovery.

I had long feared that my degree wouldn’t be worth much. When I was at my lowest ebb, I thought that the whole higher education machine was a bit of a scam. When you are at school, you are pretty much told by everyone that going to university is the only option if you don’t want to spend your life being a street cleansing operative. Parents want you to go to university because of their pride. Schools want you to go to university, probably because of some kind of target, or league tables or something. And governments want you to go to university because of their peculiar obsession with having 50% of school leavers in higher education, and probably also to keep unemployment figures down as well.

Quite why I should have wanted to go to university is a bit of a mystery now. It was fairly clear early on that my degree wouldn’t be enough to set me apart, mostly because people began to tell us. There was that old joke about the university graduate who went on to become the best barman in town.

I could see why it was the case. The intellectual range of students is surprisingly large. I studied alongside many students who did not seem very bright (and spent much of their four years at university consuming alcohol), but were obviously quite good at exams. I think I am relatively smart and hard-working, but I don’t happen to perform so well at exams (my essay marks were always higher). Both types of student are likely to get a 2:1, but one of those types is surely the better for the employer. I have few ways of signalling to an employer which type I am.

The fact that employers do not value degrees very highly at all is evident in the fact that most blue chip companies will have job applicants sit their own exams, aptitude tests, diagrammatic reasoning tests and so on and so forth. Simply, there are too many degrees sloshing about in the system and the value of a degree is now so low that it tells you almost nothing about a person’s ability to do a job.

Maybe in the long run it will pay off and I will be pleased I put myself through four years of stress and horrible three hour round-trip commutes. In the meantime, I look at the people around me who have never been to university and think what I could be doing now had I taken their path. If I worked in a shop from the age of 16, I could be in management by now. If I left school at 16 and took up a trade such as plumbing, I would be perfectly comfortable and happy with my life already. I might even be running my own business. As things stand, I just feel a bit lost and I don’t know what my prospects are.

What I find notable is that the few opportunities I have had have arisen as a result of my blogging activities. No-one is interested in me because of my degree. There are plenty of people with one of them, and they’re all looking for jobs too.

The loss of my part time job last week came as a further blow to morale. Even though I was planning to leave my job at around this time anyway, there is nothing like being made redundant from a low-paid shelf-stacking job to make you feel like a spare part to the world. I need to remember that it’s not my fault.

Unemployment has affected me more than I thought it might. While I have never been unemployed in the official sense before, I have had periods of downtime before — summer breaks from university and the like. I thought it would feel like that. But it doesn’t. A whole lot of baggage comes with unemployment.

I have found myself being quite down at times. The scariest part is not the lack of income (for the time being) but the potential that I might end up isolated. You might not get along with all of your colleagues, but they are nonetheless like a second family. It’s a whole set of people who are there, prepared to listen to you and offer advice. Regular contact with people keeps you connected to society. With many of my friends either still studying or gallivanting somewhere else, I am a bit worried about becoming isolated.

Jennifer Tracey asks on the iPM blog if there is less of a stigma attached to being unemployed now that the economy is in such a bad state. I couldn’t help but feel rather self conscious as I took my first trip to the Jobcentre and I almost felt like the spotlight was on me as I walked up the steps to the entrance. I suppose that is quite silly really, because in this part of the world the Jobcentre’s steps are quite well used.

But what other people might think doesn’t bother me as much as what I think does. The prospect that I might be unable to positively contribute to society for the next while vexes me a lot.

The final month or so of working at Woolworths was without doubt the strangest. It was certainly an experience. The bright new posters, along with the masses of media publicity surrounding the problems Woolworths faced, attracted a different kind of customer. As friendly Woolies regulars browsed the aisles, the vultures started circling alongside them.

I had absolutely no problem whatsoever with people hunting for bargains. A few people told me they didn’t like to buy anything from Woolies because it was already so empty. But their concern was misplaced. The point of holding a sale, after all, is to persuade more people to buy. I took advantage of the situation myself, and now my attic is full of items that I have bought in preparation for moving out.

But the sheer rudeness of some of the bargain hunters was utterly uncalled for. There were a few stories in the media about abusive customers, summarised by Silversprite, and they are not too far off the mark. I have heard stories from other stores where staff members were physically abused, had shopping baskets thrown them and more. I personally didn’t encounter anything that could be described as clear-cut abuse, but I certainly encountered some uncalled for, insensitive, outright rudeness.

For instance, there was one pair of customers who acted in consort in what very much came across as a premeditated attempt to lay into a Woolworths worker (me) whose job was on the line. The man asked me, “So when is the real sale starting?” I raised my eyebrow because I couldn’t take the question seriously. After all, the business had just had its two biggest-ever days of sales — first when the “biggest ever sale” began, then again on the day it officially became a closing down sale. As such, our store was quite bare. Plus, these people were actually buying products. It can’t be that 20%, 30% and 50% off their items isn’t enough?

The pair kept looking at me. I laughed and said, “We don’t really need to reduce the prices further — we don’t have any stock left as it is.” It seemed to me to be a pretty watertight response. It seemed to have the man stumped. But the woman said, “That’s just because it’s Christmas.” The man chipped in again: “Exactly. EXACTLY.”

The tone of the man’s voice revealed that the pair were not simply being obtuse — they were being downright malicious. It was the fact that they had obviously decided together in advance that they were going to have a go at me simply because they were disappointed in what was on offer (despite the fact that they bought a basketful of goods!). That would be bad enough in normal times, but when I was mere weeks away from being made redundant it was utterly disgusting. The sheer vindictiveness of it had me in a rage for days.

Day 4 / 365 / 2009: Sign O The Times
Woolworths Kirkcaldy in the final few days
Photo credit: “Day 4 / 365 / 2009: Sign O The Times” by Frankie’s Photo’s

Another customer approached one of my colleagues and started ranting and raving about how our closing down sale was all a scam, complaining that it had “been on for weeks” (actually, at that point it had only been on for a few days, but even so, it inevitably takes a while to wind down a retail empire as large as Woolworths). I know some shops have been known to run fake closing down sales. But given the massive amount of news coverage that had been given to Woolies’ woes, I would have thought it was plain that ours was definitely not a scam and that person’s hectoring and aggressive attitude was totally uncalled for.

There was also the regular complaint about how all the items that were 50% off at the start of the sale were the worst items. This also seemed like quite a silly complaint, and tempted though I was explain to them that those products had the most money off precisely because they were the worst items, I feared that it would have been a waste of breath.

Matters were not helped when dodgy media reporting raised customer expectations. Some sloppy reporters on the television apparently said that everything in store was 50% off. Of course, at first most items were only 10% or 20% off. Some customers complained vociferously. It seemed to be beyond some people’s grasp that Woolworths was unable to control what the media says. What they say on breakfast television is a matter for Terry Wogan on Points of View, not me in Woolworths.

The situation wasn’t helped by the poorly designed Hilco sign that had “up to” in minuscule writing — the source of another heap of complaints. It was not unusual for customers to demand a price check on every item in a basket or two full with goods. For a few days, I feared that the words “Is there 50% off that?” would be my epitaph.

Then there were the people who knew full well what the percentage off the item was, but were either too lazy or too thick to work out the final price for themselves — despite the handy table provided! People wondered why we didn’t change the price labels, but with discounts changing almost on a daily basis (and three times a day in the final day) this simply wouldn’t have been manageable.

Because Woolworths was closing down, some people thought they had the right to get items for next to nothing. One person had the cheek to ask for more money off because he was buying eight James Bond DVDs — but they were already 50% off!

None of these people looked like charity cases, and Woolworths wasn’t a charity. It was a business. Prices may have been reduced, but there was no need for us to give away stock (with the possible exception of the dummy CCTV cameras). It seemed to be news to some people that the administrators were duty-bound to recover as much money as possible. The familiar protest, “But it doesn’t matter, you’re closing down anyway,” makes no sense. When a company is in the sort of situation Woolworths found itself in, that’s when it needs money the most — not least because it needs to pay its workers.

A couple of customers provided a chuckle though. Some people were utterly oblivious to the problems that had hit Woolworths. One customer, just a few days before Christmas — three weeks after Woolworths went into administration — seemed confused and asked me in all seriousness, “What’s happened to all your stock?”

Woolies had been a major news story for about a month, including being the lead item on major bulletins on at least two days. This person had not heard about Woolies on the television or the radio; she hadn’t read about it in the newspapers; she didn’t even hear about it through word of mouth. Most astonishingly of all, she completely failed to read the dozens and dozens of “CLOSING DOWN” posters that were by then emblazoned all over the store!

Of course, it goes without saying that the vast majority of customers were very pleasant. In the final few weeks I had a lot of wonderful conversations with people wishing me all the best for the future.

But a few nasty people had a major sympathy bypass. The overwhelming message from these customers was: “Screw your job, I WANT A BARGAIN.” My final weeks at Woolworths brought with them a glimpse into the nasty side of human nature.