Celebrity parish pump

Well, good day to you all. This is old Seth Throttle writing to you from the lovely old village of Nether-cum-Retro. It’s been a funny old autumn so far and that’s a fact. Did you hear that the countryside nowadays is overrun by rock stars, bankers, actresses and models.

Getting all the local gossip in Nether-cum-Retro

Getting all the local gossip in Nether-cum-Retro

I heard all about it in The Three Jolly Aromatherapists when I popped in for my usual lunchtime cup of celeriac froth. Old Smiler Watkins told me. Old Smiler is my style icon, on account of his Manolo Blahnik wellies which he won in the Lammastide raffle at the poodle parlour.

Anyhow, Old Smiler got the latest celebrity village gossip from Mrs Parkin who runs the village Topshop. Everyone goes to Topshop for a bit of a gossip and Mrs Parkin has all the parish pump news, like which local rock star has split from his group to go solo, or what the Dow Jones index has been up to lately.

Now, what else can I tell you has been happening in our little village? Well, there’s been a terrible plague of gameshow hosts lately. I spotted one on Thursday last, up by Ungaro’s helipad, then two days later I flushed out a pair of them in Naomi’s Wood; Mrs Parkin said there’s a flock of them down by Lagerfeld marshes. She can hear them howling in the night.

We have an old saying round these parts: if you get a glut of gameshow hosts at the end of October it means that the Winter Collections are going to be late. You may scoff, but it’s amazing how many of these old sayings turn out to be true. There’s another one I learnt as a child: if the cob nuts are ripe ere Michaelmas ’tis as sure as eggs that hemlines will be shorter and aubergine will be the new black.

There are some country cures as well, for sure. Old Smiler swears that you can make warts disappear if you just rub them with a white truffle. I say caviar works just as good.

So, what’s the other news? Mrs Parkin says that Mr Worthington who lives down at Pig’s Bottom has still got his writer’s block, ever since the film deal fell through. And we’re all invited up to the Big House next Tuesday for a celebration, because the squire’s got a new album coming out.

On Sunday at morning service in church the vicar will be reading out the announcement that the actress and the Channel 4 executive who live at the Old Forge have decided to go their separate ways but will remain good friends.

Sadly, the village Ladies’ Tug of War Team will not be entering the All Hampshire Championships next summer, for the 12th year running, because none of our supermodels has the strength to pick up the rope. Never mind though, we have a record entry for the Best Kept Fingernails Competition. And in next year’s Church Fete we’re expecting old Smiler to win the Bowling for the Ferrari contest.

People often ask me if I have seen many changes in village life. It’s hard to say really. I sometimes think maybe the couture is not as haute as it used to be, but that’s probably just when I’m in a bad mood. Fashions alter, of course. One year it’s the peasant look and the next it’s all angular shapes and big shoulders.

The young people can be a problem. The trouble is, there’s not so many boutiques in the village as in my young days so they get bored and they hang around on the corner outside the delicatessen or go into the organic shop and squeeze squashes. We need more places like Topshop where they can go and try on clothes all day. It’s hard for them when the nearest Accessorize is 13 minutes away by Range Rover.

Still, I mustn’t grumble. When life seems hard I always remember the words of my dear old granny – “Does my bum look big in this?” And it did.


Where are the brass monkeys?

It looks increasingly likely that this will prove to be one of the driest Octobers since records began 300 years ago.

brass monkeysActually, I am told that records really began 301 years ago, but they had such a wet October that year that the book in which the weather was recorded was washed away in floods. Over the years climate changes have certainly disrupted our conversations about the weather.

By October, about twenty years ago, we would already have been referring to brass monkeys, but we are now more likely to be saying: “Damn butterflies! They get everywhere.” Experts say it may be the third week in November before anyone walks into a saloon bar in rural Sussex and is greeted with the words: “Cold enough for you?”

Although records of the weather began a mere 300 years ago, records of conversations about the weather started much earlier. We know that in 1364 a monk in Chester was keeping A Book of Discourses About the Great Inclemency. In February 1366 he recorded Brother Stephen saying: “I doubt not, but that this spell of foul wet weather delighteth ducks.”

The records give us fascinating insights into life in this country during the Great Conversation Stopper of 1412. That was the year when the weather was utterly predictable; there were April showers, it was hot in August and it rained at Christmas.

As the year progressed, the people, with nothing to say to each other, became more and more discontented, until finally the good harvest was, so to speak, the last straw. An entirely silent mob marched on London to overthrow the king. They were stopped at Hounslow when the authorities sent out a body of weather forecasters who intercepted them and predicted that it would rain the next day. When the promised rain failed to appear, the mob dispersed and the people returned to their homes saying: “These forecasters never get it right. What do they know? Remember when they said the hurricane of 1403 would never happen?”

Happily for national harmony, the year 1416 turned out to be a complete mess. July was a wash-out and there were daffodils in November. It actually snowed on the opening day of the bear-baiting season. In the Record of Weather Conversations in the Parish of Okehampton in the County of Devon for that year, we read: “Mistress Martin sayeth that ye strange weather is caused by ye shooting of all those arrows through the air at the Battle of Agincourt last year. It was playing with nature.”

The first annual appearance of the expression “cold enough for you?” once occurred even later than November. It was said on 11th December in 1633 to one Edward Stockman, an apprentice manure grader, as he entered a tavern in Much Hadham on that date. Not much conversation followed this, as Mr Stockman then stabbed to death the person who had asked the question.

This was, in many ways, a shame, because the conditions on that date were ideal for somebody to say: “I would not send a dog out on a night like this.” One result of the stabbing was that this observation was not made until 1744 in Leicester. In 1802 the remark about not sending the dog out was made no fewer than 22,048 times in February alone. This was recorded in the fascinating volume, Repartee on the Subject of the Current Sleet.

According to the records of weather conversations, the Most Boring October Ever was in 1811 when, from the second day of the month to the 29th, without a break, at least 150 people in Rutland said: “Honestly, I don’t know what has happened to the seasons these day. You just don’t know where you are any more.”

I suppose one of the most dramatic years must have been 1866 when a gentleman in Pall Mall, in London, observed: “I should have known it was going to rain today; I got my coachman to wash and wax my barouche box this morning.” After that, the number of pages in the records, noting similar remarks, reached a thickness of four inches within two days.

It was thought that the Government might have to declare a state of emergency, then the weather suddenly turned fine and, in one day, no fewer than 40,000 people said: “I’ve just seen a round yellow object in the sky; I wonder what it can be.”

No, no … don’t duplicate!

Following the publication today of a story on the BBC News website technology section that includes a quote from yours truly, I was asked a question via Twitter which I said I would clarify here on my blog for interested parties to learn a little more about my line of thinking.

There's much more to potholes than a hole in the road!

There's much more to potholes than a hole in the road!

The questioner (Mash the State) sought clarification over a subsequent Tweet I made that councils should make their own equivalent e-service applications to FixMyStreet or the (sadly now defunct) planningalerts.com, etc., as good as the independent sites.

Another (Kev Campbell-Wright) asked me: “Why does every council need their own fault reporting when FixMyStreet works from everywhere?”

So, to clarify where I was coming from with the original comment and an attempt at clarification in the limited 140 character space available to me on Twitter, here’s my take on the whole thing, starting with the original quote from the BBC News story:

“It’s a short-sighted council that is a bit sniffy about these services,” said John Fox, who helps to monitor the use of websites and social media for Socitm – the professional body for local government IT managers.

“They can see these services as a bit of a pain in the neck rather than embracing them,” he said.

He added that those behind some of the follow-on services should consider the impact of what they were doing on local councils.

“One of the big issues for putting the services on the website is what happens to that information after it has been entered by you, me or a citizen,” said Mr Fox.

For instance, he said, when it came to street repairs some councils had created a streamlined system that, once a pothole is reported, routes information electronically so that the only human intervention is a man pouring tar into the offending chasm.

By contrast, he said, in some councils a report filed via FixMyStreet may have to be forwarded via e-mail several times before it reaches the right department.

Despite this, he said, more and more councils were opening up. Kent County Council has set up the “Pic and Mix” website that allows anyone to take some of its data and play around with it.

Some maintained a presence on social sites, such as Facebook, to reach their citizens.

Salford, he said, regularly ran an online element to its annual debate about budgets to ensure people are involved with how their council tax is spent.

What I said to Mark Ward (BBC correspondent) was that those councils that are a bit sniffy about sites like FixMyStreet are missing a bit of a trick. Many may not have sufficient resources to develop their own integrated online services inhouse, so FixMyStreet provides a zero-cost way of providing online services via an intermediary service and can help to make the council’s own website appear (to the citizen) to offer more transactional capabilities. Good news all round basically.

But, where a council has already developed e-services in house, either bespoke or using a proprietary application with a web plug-in (as I write this I can’t for the life of me recall the name of the highways reporting system that is used at Salford), then a considerable investment has already been made by that council in providing online services and it would not be politic to simply ditch that application and switch to the FixMyStreet model.  Instead, effort should be put into making sure that the internal e-service is simple and straightforward for both citizen and council to use as possible, to drive take-up whilst reducing overall transactional costs for the authority.

So there’s two models. But there’s a third. So let’s assume the council has its own e-service for citizens to report a highway problem, eg a pothole. Just how well used is that e-service? Is take-up e-service good, poor, or non-existent?  Maybe the usability is questionable? Maybe it simply takes too long to complete the task? Or maybe the council isn’t marketing its availability effectively enough and citizens are finding FixMyStreet instead?

It is highly probable that using FixMyStreet: a) takes less time, b) works every time, and c) has additional customer-oriented functionality for the end user to check out.

So if FixMyStreet works better for the citizen than the council’s own e-service equivalent, which isn’t being well used, the council should perhaps be putting effort into getting the internal investment recouped, shouldn’t it?

One could argue that in the final analysis, its all about the citizen – provided the citizen ultimately gets the service they’ve requested (ie to have a pothole repaired) it doesn’t really matter, does it, whether the enabler was the council’s internal system or FixMyStreet?

Well, actually (sticking my neck out), yes I think it does matter!

The council’s internal system will hopefully have been set up to automate as far as possible the internal process, from initial citizen report, to entering the problem report into the highways system and a log number being generated.  Then a work order is generated at the highways depot and a man goes out in his little van and fills the pothole in.  Meanwhile the citizen gets an automatically generated email thanking him for reporting the pothole, providing a log number and further information on who to contact if he wishes to follow up at a later date.

If the system works really well additional customer facilities will be enabled, like informing the customer that the hole has been filled in, or providing details on the website of his problem statement and the subsequent fix. As an aside, in my capacity as a Better connected reviewer, I’d be especially delighted if I received an acknowledgement email that informed me about other online service offerings from that council that I might like to try out sometime.

Where FixMyStreet falls down (in comparison to the council’s own e-service) is that the pothole report is sent in an automatically generated email from the owners of FixMyStreet to a nominal contact in the council. For a council that gets a lot of FixMyStreet reports, that’s potentially an awful lot of reports being sent to a single individual. It’s usually one contact per council, they’ll receive not just potholes but also street lights, dead animals, etc., so they’ll have to farm out the reports to the relevant part of the council for action. I know of one council where the contact is the council’s single press officer, he’s a busy man and the potential for messages to get held up, unactioned, in his inbox is not inconsiderable.

These factors inevitably impact upon transactional costs because extended time and human interventions are involved in passing the FixMyStreet report to the right department, then it has to be keyed and the work request generated before the highway man pops out with his bucket of tarmac.

Essentially, then, the general thrust of my assertion is that the council’s own e-service  is likely (if well designed) to reduce overall transaction costs, whereas the FixMyStreet method might work well for the citizen but it doesn’t work terribly well for the council because there’s no back office integration for the problem reporting, and therefore transaction costs will be higher.

And so yes there is, I believe, a real benefit in making sure that the council’s own e-services where available work effectively, and where they aren’t available, then promote the FixMyStreets of this world and get your internal processes attuned to handling the enquiries you’ll doubtless generate as a result of doing so!

Sod it!

"Sod it!"

"Sod it!"

I’ve just submitted a review to TripAdvisor about our stay earlier this week at Ruth Watson’s Crown & Castle Hotel in Orford, Suffolk. I’ll add a link to the published review when it appears on their website.

Reading between the lines of earlier [TripAdvisor] reviews, a pretty high bar was set for our stay. We were keen to find out about the IKEA furnishings and the apparent idiosyncracies of the hotel’s well-known co-proprietor. What transpired, however, was that many thoughtful touches really set this establishment apart from its contemporaries, and in combination provide an exceptional ‘visitor experience’ that I’ve yet to encounter elsewhere.

Yes, the IKEA furniture was present in our rooms, but it was for entirely practical reasons. There’s nothing worse than staying in an upmarket hotel with tired or frayed-at-the-edges furniture. The Crown & Castle solves this perennial issue by furnishing with highly functional, well-designed IKEA furniture that can so easily (and inexpensively) replaced as often as may be required to maintain an excellent standard of room decoration and contemporary appeal.

I had booked one of the pet-friendly garden rooms, and my companion was in the main house with a lovely view of Orford Ness. My room had a delightful personal note written for my dog about hotel facilities with a note at the top that it should be passed to me “to read also”. Nearby was a towel, a bat and ball for garden games and a doggy bedcover to save the duvet from damp paws. Molly said that the complimentary hand-made dog biscuits were very tasty.

We had pre-booked table 30 for dinner which meant that Molly was able to join us for our evening meal. She was pampered and fussed over by staff and customers alike, and enjoyed sitting on a chair next to the table where (tut tut) she politely accepted the odd titbit from our delicious meals.

Next morning Molly had a lie-in whilst we enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast in the restaurant with tasty local Suffolk cure bacon, awesome marmalade and fabulous bread.

What really sets this hotel apart from others is the no-nonsense approach to providing hotel facilities or information for customers. Ruth Watson’s TV persona shone through just about everywhere!

Whether it was the down-to-earth menu (we both heartily recommend the diet-defying delightfully named “Sod it!” hot chocolate mousse, the best either of us had ever tasted) or the breakfast menu that declared that the fresh squeezed orange juice was fresh squeezed in the ‘as in whole oranges freshly squeezed in our kitchen this morning’ but that the grapefruit juice was ‘freshly squeezed in the supermarket sense’!

Everything about this hotel just shrieks: ‘we want you to have a great time and feel like a valued customer.

Nothing was too much trouble for the staff who were very competent and highly professional yet friendly and unstuffy. We took our leave with much regret and a firm intention to return again in the future.