Monday, 28 October 2013

St Jude's - and other storms

So how are we all today? Wet, windblown, trees fallen down in the garden? Here in mid Essex, I think we got off reasonably lightly, although even now at 2pm, the sky's black, the rain's beating down and there's still a fair old wind blowing. I saw branches blown off trees as I walked round our neighbourhood this morning, but nothing worse, thank goodness. I'm sure there are other parts of the country that suffered a far worse fate. There's already one terribly tragic story about a teenage boy feared drowned off the south coast and we're surely all feeling for his poor family.

But luckily in my own area, the worst result of the storm is probably the inconvenience to people who normally commute to work, or who were planning to travel today. There were no trains running at all until at least midday, flights cancelled from Heathrow, and the QE2 Bridge at the Dartford crossing on the Thames has been closed, which would have caused horrendous queues on both the Essex and Kent sides of the river as the Dartford Tunnel was used in contraflow.

At times like this it's always hard to know whether there's any overreaction from transport bosses, but to be fair, if they didn't err on the side of caution, putting passenger/motorist safety as their first priority, imagine how they'd be pilloried if they carried on as normal and there were serious accidents. Likewise, if we sometimes think the weather forecasters get it wrong, or act with any degree of caution or exaggeration, there are always complaints - but they can't really win, can they? If they told us not to worry, that it wouldn't be too bad, and we ended up with a hurricane the likes of the 1987 one, we'd all quite rightly be asking why they'd got it so wrong again.

Cue poor Michael Fish, who has never lived down his comment back in 1987 that there really wasn't a hurricane coming.  The country was caught out, that time, and I can understand forecasters not wanting to be in that situation again.  The trouble is that we just don't expect hurricanes in England, do we! 

During the night of 15/16 October 1987, I woke several times thinking it was very windy outside, but was completely unprepared for the devastation we saw in the morning. In fact, my children will remember that even in the morning I hadn't yet appreciated how serious it was. I insisted they got ready for school, thinking my neighbour who'd told her kids they wouldn't be going was being too lenient by letting them have the day off. It was only as we started to walk to school that I saw how bad the damage to trees and property was, and we soon learnt from others coming back our way that both the children's schools were closed. That storm, as we now know, killed 18 people in the UK, destroyed an estimated 15 million trees, and was designated as the worst to hit our country since 1703.  In fact it was after this that the Government allocated funding for the Met Office to set up the National Severe Weather Warning system.

The 1987 hurricane is well remembered, but people don't seem to talk so much about the so-called 'Burns Day' storm of 25 January 1990, although in fact a tragically higher number of people were killed on this occasion - 47 - because the height of the storm was during the day instead of at night. There was one story of a whole class of children in Sussex being evacuated minutes before their building collapsed. There were gusts of wind with speeds just as high as in the 1987 hurricane, although apparently (and according to my understanding), to be classed as a hurricane proper, a storm has to record wind speeds that are sustained over a certain period rather than in gusts. Other than this, probably the main difference between the 1987 and 1990 events was the fact that on 25 January 1990 the forecasters got it right.

On that day of the Burns Day storm I arrived home to find our brick garden wall completely collapsed into the garden. It was quite shocking to witness first hand the damage a storm could do in the normally temperate climate of southern England. From my point of view only one good thing came out of it. I wrote a short story set on the day of the storm, and it was eventually published in one of the women's magazines.  Like most writers, I can usually turn the unfortunate things in my life to good use in fiction. So perhaps St Jude won't be a lost cause this year after all. But I do hope you are all safe and well after last night's bad weather.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Reliable service??

OK, here goes a rant! Himself and I are fed up, and also frankly bemused, by the number of people who are supposed to be there to provide a service, or are in business and (one would have thought) trying to secure work for themselves - and simply let us down. Is it just us? I don't think so, judging by the sympathetic nods of agreement I get whenever I moan about this to friends and acquaintances.

Take this morning for example. Someone from a carpet company who had arranged to come and measure our spare bedroom between 9 am and 10 am failed to arrive, and when Himself (sighing with irritation) phoned him to find out whether he was running late - he calmly said 'Oh, was it supposed to be today?'  Needless to say, he was told to forget it, and we went elsewhere.

Just the other day I was promised a call back by a restaurant where I was hoping to book a Christmas meal for at least a dozen people. Nobody called me back, meaning I had to call again. I'm now waiting for an email I was promised from them. Somehow it won't surprise me in the slightest if I have to chase that up too.

That's the most dispiriting thing about this: the fact that it doesn't even surprise us anymore. We recently had both our kitchen and bathroom refitted. Quite a big, not to say expensive, job, so we did the sensible thing and shopped around for the best prices. Of the local kitchen and bathroom specialists we approached, there were two who came along, measured up, made notes, and each spent over an hour of their time talking us through the work required and even giving us some useful ideas (thanks, guys!) ... and then never came back to us with a price. Two of them!  The first one, we gave the benefit of the doubt, gave him a call to ask how he was getting on with our quote, and were given an excuse about a child being ill and then a family holiday ... we didn't bother to call again. When the second one failed to get back to us, we decided not to bother chasing him up at all. Why should we need to? If he was that unreliable, we didn't really want him for the job. We've never heard from either of those guys again. And furthermore, even one of the big national DIY stores, who did at least produce a plan and an initial price for us, never got back to us again when we asked for some changes.

What is it with these people?!

Contrary to anything you might think, we are not hard to contact. We have, between us, one home phone, two email addresses, two mobile phone numbers, and a postal address. We're not even out at work during the day. We're reasonable people who don't (without good reason) complain, moan or expect the earth - we just want people to respond to us when they say they will, to turn up when they say they will and do what they've offered to do - or at the very least, to contact us and let us know if they have to be late/not turn up/let us down in some way.  How do people like this stay in business? Isn't everyone supposed to be desperate for work these days?

We were shocked, on a recent holiday in the USA, to find that the bad service epidemic seems to have spread over there too. Once again, we asked ourselves: Is it us?!  We had gone there expecting to find extreme efficiency and top-dollar customer service. Sadly, our experience in the hotels we stayed at was the opposite. In none of them was there enough staff to cope with the number of tourists staying there (we were part of a coach party) - so that there were horrendously long queues for breakfast, with tables not being cleared, food running out, hot drinks not being offered - it was really poor. For an evening dinner at one hotel we were asked to wait, standing up, in a reception area until a table became available. The staff were struggling to cope and seemed too demoralised to care.  We don't look for luxury when we stay in hotels - just basic comfort, good food and good manners!  Fortunately, apart from this the holiday was great! - but the hotel service was certainly a sad and surprising let-down.

As someone who is frequently on the receiving end of reviews (Amazon in my case - and fortunately the majority are usually good!), I know how important they are, and how much they can hurt if they seem unfair. I've made it a personal rule to only post reviews on sites like Amazon and Trip Advisor if I've really been pleased with something.  I was taught early in my life: 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all!'  So I don't post negative reviews, and I will spare the tradesmen and hotels mentioned above from being named and shamed, even if they do deserve it! 

We've since phoned another carpet company, whose representative came round within hours, at the time promised, measured up, treated us with extreme courtesy and helpfulness when we visited the showroom, and they're going to fit the carpet next week on the day we wanted. We're feeling delighted about it. But surely ... it should just be the norm, shouldn't it? Or ... is it just us?!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Wiv Words - Wivenhoe, Essex

Just in case anyone in the Essex area happens to be reading this, you might be interested in the WivWords Festival 2013, now taking place at Wivenhoe, near Colchester.

I'm taking part in an author panel event at the library there, this Friday from 3 - 4 pm. The other three authors are my good friends Maureen Lee, Jean Fullerton and Fenella Miller.

It should be an interesting event - please do come along and meet us, and have a chat over tea and cakes!

When is a change not a change?

OK, they say a change is as good as a rest, and so I decided this blog needed a facelift. Not so much that I needed a rest from it, but I needed an incentive to write it more often! 

When I started the blog, my most recent novels were written under my Olivia Ryan name - but now that isn't the case. I use my own name much more than the Olivia one, so it seems to make sense to write the blog as Sheila Norton.

I can manage most of the technical things an author needs to do ... but like many of us 'of a certain age', that only applies if they're things we do regularly. Show me how to work my own CD player, for instance, and I'll probably have forgotten again by next week.  So I was quite pleased with myself when I discovered, almost by accident, that it was possible to change the name of the blog without any difficulty. Farewell to 'Olivia's Oracle', long live 'Sheila Norton: the Blog'.  That's if I've done it right - obviously I'm not sure now how I did it.

But sadly I can't, for the life of me, discover how to change the name of the 'author' which appears under 'about me'. I can apparently add another author - but only if you send them a request. It seems a bit batty to send myself a request but maybe that's the way to go.  Any technical genius, or blogging genius, reading this is very welcome to give me the benefit of their wisdom if they have any ideas!

Meanwhile I hope that, as if by magic, putting the blog into my own name will remind me to publish my snippets of chat and useless information on here more often. I already have a couple more things to tell you ...