Farewell Terry Pratchett

I don’t usually read fantasy fiction, but, about fifteen years ago, my curiosity was aroused when I noticed that two whole shelves of the fantasy section in my local public library were devoted to one author.  So, I checked out The Colour of Magic.

Then I disappeared. I reappeared a couple of months later when I could find no more words written by Terry Pratchett to read. After that, I usually bought the hardback copy of new Discworld novels, because I was too hungry for more Pratchett to wait for the paperback.  In fact, I was a kind of Discworld ghoul.

So, it isn’t surprising that I cried when I read of Terry Pratchett’s death.

I’m not qualified to judge whether he was the Jonathan Swift of our time, or a successful genre writer who will be forgotten in a generation.  Personally, I think he was the PG Wodehouse of our time, and both authors wrote work which will last, unlike several of our currently fȇted literary novelists.

So goodbye to Terry Pratchett, whom I never met, and goodbye to all his characters that I feel I not only met, but got onto first name terms with, especially Captain Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Rincewind, and DEATH.

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The married couples allowance

I don’t agree with Polly Toynbee who rails against the married couples’ allowance (actually the married couples’ and civil partners’ allowance) in todays Guardian.  Or with Caron Lindsay who has said she won’t claim it on ethical grounds.

For several years before we went to Canada in ’06, the only income I had was non-means tested disability benefit and a small pension.  The two together came to more than the personal tax allowance, so even though my income was not enough to live on, I still paid tax. If I’d been single, I would have received additional means tested benefits, but because I was married and living with my husband, he was expected to support me.

In Canada I was no longer receiving benefit, but still had the pension.  My income was not enough to use up the personal tax allowance, but I was able to transfer the unused portion to my husband, reducing his tax bill. I’m fairly certain that in Canada all cohabitees can do this, regardless of whether they are married or not.

This seems fair to me.  If we continue to expect the earning partner to support the non earning or low earning partner, then it is right that they should be able to utilise their partners’ unused tax allowance.  So, the new married couples’ allowance is a step in the right direction.  It would be better if it were the whole allowance rather than a portion of it, and if it could be used by all couples, not just those married or in a civil partnership.

The rules for means tested benefits continue to be an obstacle to single mothers who wish to form new supportive relationships. The new allowance isn’t going to change that.  From the reports I’ve read in the press, undeclared cohabitation forms a high proportion of ‘benefit cheat’ cases in the courts, motivated not by greed but by a desire for love and support. I think that is very sad, and I would agree with anyone who finds Ian Duncan Smith’s preaching about ‘family values’ hypocritical.  But that doesn’t mean that the allowance is wrong per se.

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How long?

The latest issue of Ad Lib has an article on the 1906 Liberal landslide that states that the Liberals ‘had been out of power for 20 years’.


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Solar panels

Back last summer, we decided not to put solar panels on our roof, but recently we have reconsidered the pros and cons and decided to get fresh quotes.

On the con side are the aesthetics.  This was the deciding factor last year, since our house is part of a terrace of coastguard cottages which are a local landmark. The roof is mellow dappled Delabole slate. The terrace is not listed, however, and one of the houses already has panels. The other con is the uncertainty about how long we will remain in the house and whether it will be long enough to get our money back (I don’t buy the argument that panels will increase the value of the house on resale: panels are a depreciating asset so even if they add value initially, they won’t after a few years).

But, there is one big pro, which is that the FIT (feed in tariff), even now it has been reduced several times, makes panels one of the best financial investments we can make with our savings, possibly yielding as much as an inflation proofed 9% p.a. compared with less than 6% fixed from an annuity.

I could also argue that it is our civic duty to utilise our prime south facing sunny site, but actually I think the ethics are fairly evenly balanced pro and con. On the one hand the FIT is a ‘middle-class subsidy’, and George Monbiot makes a convincing argument that due to the inefficiency of panels in our maritime climate, it is a poor way of spending public money to reduce our carbon emissions. On the other hand, this is a democracy and this is the way we as a society have decided to fulfil our commitment to combat climate change, so is it right to opt out when I agree with the objective and only object to the method?

Last year I was also put off by the difficulty of comparing quotes and checking the information provided by salesman and I’m not relishing going through the process again.  There doesn’t seem to be any industry standard for comparing the efficiency of panels. A label system for panels similar to that used for electrical appliances would be very helpful for consumers. The  Energy Savings Trust provides a useful solar energy calculator which estimates the savings for the first year after installation, which is a better guide than the figures provided by salesmen.

Most installers seem to be small local firms, which means that any guarantee they give for their workmanship is almost valueless, so a national guarantee scheme would also be helpful. Not that there seem to be many complaints about workmanship, but it is of particular concern to coastal dwellers like ourselves, whose panels will have to withstand high winds and salt-laden air.

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On 8th November, the Guardian reported that MyCSP, the government’s ‘flagship mutual venture’ was a shambles.  If our experience is anything to go by, it still is.

My husband applied for his civil service pension in early October.   Shortly afterwards, our marriage certificate which had been enclosed with the application was returned to us. Then nothing.  We rang them in early November and were  told that his application would be given priority.

About a week later we got an email telling us that his pension together with lump sum was going to be paid ‘by close of play today’.  My husband had filled in the form to have the lump sum commuted to higher pension payments, so we replied pointing this out.

The following day we received a reply from the same cricket-metaphor using clerk, saying he had the case to ‘the systems service desk’ and would get back to us when he had a response.

That was eleven days ago and we’ve heard nothing since.  Off my own bat, it seems to me that MyCSP is on a sticky wicket and put onto the back foot.   I’m stumped if I know how to get an early payment from them of what we are owed, since their complaints system gives them four months to reply to a letter, so I’ll be knocked for six if we get a payment before Christmas.

Seasons Greetings to everyone.

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Alternatives to Save the Children

Towards the end of last year I did a blog piece saying that, once we had returned to the UK, I was going to review our regular charitable donations and maybe find smaller charities to donate to, that did not pay their executives enormous salaries, rather than the big guns than make up the DEC.

But, I haven’t got around to doing the research yet.  Recently, feeling uncomfortable that we hadn’t made a charitable donation since the end of June, I sent a cheque to Save the Children.

Now I wish I hadn’t. Apart from the award to Blair, I’ve been reminded that Blair’s former advisor Justin Forsyth is paid more for heading Save the Children UK  than David Cameron’s salary as Prime Minister. I appreciate that international aid charities require highly qualified specialists to operate effectively, but, however rare they are as individuals, I also find it impossible to believe that such people have to be paid more than the head of government of the world’s sixth richest nation.

Save the Children is my husband’s choice of charity but I’ve never objected to it previously. In order to persuade him to switch, I need to find that small charity that isn’t enriching its executives, and so I’m making a plea for suggestions from anyone reading this piece.  He is very interested in funds for educating child refugees, particularly from Syria.

Meanwhile I’m going to put off setting up a direct debit for another few months.

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Impressions of the UK

We’ve been home for over four months now. I visited the UK every year that I was away, but visiting is not the same as living in a place and there has still been a cultural adjustment to make after eight years in Canada.

It’s not so much that things here are different to Canada, but that they are different to the way I remember in 2006 when we left.

My expectations have been pleasantly confounded by my experience of the NHS since I got back. Yesterday, I had to go to the fracture clinic again, because my cast had become loose as the swelling went down. Yet again I was seen within a couple of minutes of my arrival; so quickly that my husband hadn’t had time to park the car and join me in the waiting room.  Despite all the dire reports of crisis in NHS care in the papers, I’ve felt reassured by our experience so far

On the other hand, customer service by many of the big companies is no worse than I remember it, but it certainly hasn’t improved. Over the last four months, I reckon I’ve spent time equivalent to at least a working day in frustrating phone calls to undertrained staff in call-centres, taking hours to sort out petty problems that should have taken minutes.  It is not hyperbole to say that the combined poor service of the utilities and telecommunications giants must have a negative effect on national productivity. In the future when I’m shopping around for services, I’ll pay attention to the company’s customer service reputation and whether their call centre is staffed by anglophones.

When I went to Canada in ’06 a greater percentage of Canadians were sceptical about climate change than British.  In the last eight years that statistic has been reversed as the number of climate sceptics in Britain has doubled.  Yet, despite that, Britain still feels like a much more environmentally aware country than Canada. It helps that we don’t have a tar-sands industry, or a prime-minister who treats environmentalists as unpatriotic traitors, but it is also the effort that British companies make to show that they are green as well as the ubiquitous wind turbines and solar panels; an equivalent of Marks and Spencer’s Plan A is almost unimaginable in Sears or The Bay.

Despite the partial economic recovery, Britain still feels as if it is in recession.  Most of the smaller gaps on the high street seem to have been filled, but it is several of the the bigger stores which seem to be struggling, evidenced by perpetual sales or discounts, demoralised staff, and stock shortages. The revolution in self-employment is very evident in our locality.  Almost everybody seems to have more than one job.  Our local pubs sell ‘hand-crafted’ beer, the local shop sells local ‘artisanal’ ice-cream.  Our neighbour’s gardener also has a business making and hiring out yurts. It’s a hand-craft economy that might have pleased William Morris as much as David Cameron, but the economic insecurity must be frightening for many.

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