Category Archives: Current events

Out with the old

Continuing with the festive theme started last entry (and why not?), I think I’d like to talk a little about New Year. Here in London, the New Year tradition is very simple. Go out and get absolutely hammered. If you want to really push the boat out, join the revellers in Trafalgar Square or by the river so you can hear the chimes of Big Ben as they sound. The New Year is obviously a significant day in the calendar, what with it being at the start and all. But I have to say that our tradition is lacking a little compared to those of other countries and even those of other parts of Britain.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the tradition of holding New Year on 1st January is actually not that universal. You’ve no doubt heard of Chinese New Year and are aware that it falls between January 21st and February 21st, depending when the new moon of the first lunar month falls. Well, there’s also the Tamil New Year, the Nepalese New Year, the Balinese New Year, the Islamic New Year, the Eastern Orthodox New Year and so many others that I can’t really be bothered to list them all. Suffice it to say that not everyone goes by the Gregorian calendar. Even in Britain, the New Year was only regarded as starting on 1st January from 1751 onwards. Before that, 25th March was the preferred date.

So anyway, how about the celebrations themselves? Well, we have the fireworks, of course, which are nice. And we have the New Year’s Day parade, which is also nice.

New Year festivities in Rural Scotland (NOTE TO SELF: Check this before pressing "publish.")

If you’re a bit further north, though, you might get something a bit more imaginative and a bit pagan. One tradition in Scotland and the North of England is that of burning out the Old Year. Grampian in particular has some rather interesting traditional customs. In Stonehaven, for instance, there’s a festival known as “Swinging the Fireballs,” where people, um, swing fireballs around and people let off shotguns to let the Old Year know it’s time to leave. However, there’s also the requisite eating and drinking, so it’s all good. In Burghead, there’s the more obscurely-named “Burning the Clavie,” in which a barrel of tar (the Clavie) is set alight, carried around the town and then fixed to a stone altar. The charred remains are considered to keep evil spirits at bay and thus are used as good luck charms. Allendale and Northumberland see similar festivities. Perhaps even the modern-day fireworks owe their origins to such customs as these.

Good fortune is a common theme of New Year celebrations – this may be traced back to the ancient belief that spirits lurked in the dark (and I’m not just talking about the whisky). If you don’t fancy a bit of a blaze, a lot of noise is considered an equally acceptable way to banish evil. A peal of bells from the church is one way of doing things. Another, if you’re a member of  the Berchtesgaden Christmas Shooters (Weinachtschützen des Berchtesgadener Landes) in Germany is to let off a volley of gunfire to symbolically shoot the Old Year. Similar symbolic shootings are held in Philadelphia and were once held in Angus.

After all that noise and merriment, assuming your hangover allows such things, feasting is traditional. The idea of a feast to mark the New Year dates back to the Romans (there’s that pre-Christian thing again). In Greece, a cake is served containing a coin, the finder of which will supposedly have good luck throughout the year, presumably unless  they break a tooth on it. That would be lame. Again in Germany, the eating of doughnuts is a New Year custom, along with lucky marzipan pigs. On the subject of pastry, Parisian bakers traditionally used to bake elaborate shaped pastries to mark the start of the year.

If you want to work all that off, as well as cut through your hangover, you may wish to return to London for one final New Year tradition. Brave or possibly insane souls in the Serpentine Swimming Club, Hyde Park like to go for an early morning dip in the lake. Talk about breaking the ice!!!! No, but seriously, they often do have to literally break the ice.

Anyway, Happy New Year, chums, and all the best for 2012. Show those Mayans who’s boss.

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Filed under Booze, Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, History, Only loosely about London

What the heck is Boxing Day, anyway?

Christmas has thus far been a 100% success, and now I’m settling down for the traditional Boxing Day power-down. Many will be out in the sales, fighting for bargains. Personally, I’m a bit old-fashioned, and treat the whole thing as basically “like Christmas Day, only more mellow.” If my choice is between fighting my way up Oxford Street and sitting around eating turkey and drinking port, you know which one I’m going for.

Boxing Day is a holiday that only really exists in Britain and Commonwealth countries, and seems to mystify those from other countries. It’s really quite simple. It’s a bank holday to help you recover from Christmas. It falls on the Feast of Stephen, when Good King Wenceslas looked out (there was nothing on TV except the Bond movie, and he’d already seen Live and Let Die like ten times).

I’ve heard alternative theories as to the origin of the name. One is that it was the day when boxing matches were held. While there are many sporting events traditionally held on 26th December, including boxing in Italy and several African countries, this explanation has been dismissed by experts as “like totally retarded.” Another is that it’s when the churches broke open their poor boxes for distribution to the needy, or put boxes out for collections. However, the explanation that seems most widely accepted is that it was when households would distribute Christmas gifts of trinkets, food or money – to servants. The name seems to have first appeared in the seventeenth century, when earthenware boxes were the favoured containers. Such servants would largely be household staff, but later on this expanded to include postmen, chimney sweeps and anyone else who had helped the household during the year. Through the twentieth century, households grew smaller, employing fewer servants. Technological innovation also made running a house less labour-intensive, so the tradition of Christmas boxes died out. Except… not entirely. It’s still common to give a little something to your dustman, paper boy, secretary etc., only we don’t call it “boxing” any more.

Although Boxing Day is a largely British and Commonwealth phenomenon, it’s also a Christian festival. St Stephen’s Day also falls on the 26th, and various countries have their own ways of marking the occasion. In Ireland, there’s the Feast of the Wren, when groups of revellers would go from door to door, singing and dancing and carrying a dead wren on a stick. Feathers from this wren were supposed to be a charm against shipwreck. Latterly, a live or fake wren has been used instead, because seriously, guys. In Catalonia, there is a feast where local cuisine as well as the remains of the Christmas feast are served, which sounds more like my kind of party. Returning to Britain, the tradition in Wales was to flog your female servants with branches of holly for no reason. Ironically, there are no celebrations in Serbia, the country for which St Stephen is the patron saint.

I’m not sure exactly when it became this horrendous shopping day, but quite frankly I cannot be arsed with that sort of thing. I did my struggling through the shops in the week before Christmas and have no desire to repeat the experience.

Therefore, my plan is to continue with the gluttony and materialism until I pass out, before going for the traditional Quiet Pint with Friends. Merry Christmas, chums.

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Filed under 20th Century, Current events, History, Only loosely about London, Shopping

On the bottom of the world

Today marks one hundred years since Roald Amundsen’s expedition reached the South Pole, winning the Race to the Pole and achieving one of the major goals of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Look at this guy!

And heroic it was. There is no environment quite so barren and hostile to human life as the Antarctic. The name literally means “place where there are no polar bears,” so that’s one hazard you don’t have to worry about. There are penguins, though, which survive in the seas around the continent due to their evolutionary adaptations and the fact that they are funny. The continent itself, Antarctica, is the coldest and, perversely given the fact that it’s covered in ice and snow, the driest place on Earth. The phrase “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” was never more apt. Despite many expeditions south, the continent wasn’t even seen until 1820 and it wasn’t until more than seventy years later that it was considered worth exploring.

The impetus for the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expedition came from London, specifically Professor John Murray of the Royal Geographical Society, who suggested that an exploration of the forbidding continent would be a great boon to science. His suggestion was taken up in 1895 at the Sixth International Geographical Congress, also in London (I have to justify this entry in a London blog somehow) and in 1897 the Belgian Antarctic Expedition under Adrien de Gerlache made the first serious attempt at achieving this.

The RRS Discovery, trapped in ice

Attempting a trip to the Pole with Victorian and Edwardian equipment was about the manliest thing you could do short of beating a bear to death with your penis (which, as mentioned earlier, was impossible in the Antarctic). So it’s a testament to human endeavour that there were so many expeditions over the following decades. Each one added a little more to the sum of human knowledge, both in terms of our understanding of this alien terrain and in terms of our ability to survive in such an environment. Meanwhile, they braved such hazards as hypothermia, extreme frostbite, starvation and the ever-present risk of being trapped by ice (several ships were lost in this fashion, and Captain Scott’s Discovery was frozen in for two years before being freed by dynamite and a fortunate thaw).

The Pole was one of the ultimate goals, and it came as a bit of a surprise when Roald Amundsen was the one to reach it. Not least because he hadn’t told anyone that was where he was going until he was well on his way. You see, Amundsen, for all he was brave and ingenious, was also something of a rogue. His original plan had been to reach the North Pole. However, his expedition had been held up by a lack of funds – at one point, he begged money from his own mother, claiming that it was for his studies (which makes me feel a bit less guilty about some of the things I spent my student loan on). By the time he had the money, the North Pole had already been reached.

Amundsen at the pole

Unfortunately, the South Pole wasn’t a viable goal either, for the simple reason that Captain Robert Falcon Scott of Britain was already planning such an expedition and a gentleman’s agreement was in place among the international geographic community to let him have his shot. No problem, thought Amundsen, and planned his expedition under the pretence of an Arctic voyage. Not even his men knew that they were aiming South until after they had departed, and he curtly informed Scott by telegram that the Norwegians were coming.

In Britain, we’re often taught about the heroic failure of Scott’s expedition. But the simple fact is that, having started the race, Amundsen was the most likely choice to win it. Whereas earlier expeditions were fortified by woollies and hampers from Fortnum and Mason, Amundsen copied the survival techniques used by natives of colder climes. Not a superstitious man, he planned his journey meticulously and left nothing to chance. Thus, while all the members of Scott’s expedition perished, Amundsen succeeded admirably.

While his voyage was a great acheivement for the newly-independent nation of Norway, his success was not universally celebrated back home. You see, he had broken a gentleman’s agreement, and that was Not the Done Thing.

Expeditions continued, and still do today. Modern equipment has revolutionised polar exploration, but let’s not forget the work of those early pioneers. Anyone for a brandy?

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Current events, Environment, Geography, History, Only loosely about London

Round the bend

So I see they finally got rid of the last of those bendy buses. There don’t seem to be all that many mourners.

I think part of the problem was that nobody realised quite how nostalgic Londoners got about the old Routemasters. They were a design classic and very much part of the scenery. Old-fashioned, yes, and not without faults of their own, but much beloved. Not that they’ve exactly vanished – they still work a couple of tourist routes and there have been no shortage of private firms to snap them up. But I digress.

The thing with the Routemasters was that, like the classic FX4 taxi, they were designed in consultation with drivers using the routes. They were, in a very literal sense, a bus for London. The bendy buses were not – they were off-the-peg vehicles used all over the world, from Germany to Japan to Mexico.

The bendy buses, or Mercedes-Benz Citaros to give them their proper name, were therefore not universally popular with drivers. Problems with visibility due to the length of the vehicle and reflections in the windscreen were reported. The length of the vehicle also meant that they had a tendency to foul crossings and junctions (this, incidentally, was my personal beef with them). Cyclists were perceived as being at risk from the lack of driver visibility. What also caused a certain amount of jeering in the early days was a fire aboard one of the buses en route to its new home, resulting in the nickname ‘Chariots of Fire.’ When Boris Johnson was standing for the Mayoral election, one of his promises was that he would get rid of the bendy buses and come up with a more appropriate successor to the Routemaster. A friend of mine went so far as to actually decry the bendy buses as “the Devil’s work,” which I think is perhaps a bit harsh.

However, I do wonder if the Citaros are a bus more sinned against than sinning. There has, for instance, never actually been an instance of a cyclist being killed by a bendy bus, despite Boris’ slightly showboating implications to the contrary. While it’s true that in terms of actual numbers, the bendy buses have been involved in more accidents than any other model, they are also used on more routes than any other individual model. The fire does not appear to have been caused by any fault inherent to the bendy buses and was in fact a one-off.

And the bendy buses did have certain advantages. They were roomier than your average double decker (they could hold 120 to a present-day double decker’s 85). And all of that space was downstairs, great if for whatever reason you couldn’t negotiate the stairs. Along those lines, they had disabled access, unlike their predecessor.

They were also popular for rather less orthodox reasons. One of the major reasons for their withdrawal was that they were a godsend to fare dodgers – one could board via the centre entrance. Transport for London as a result had to take on 150 extra ticket inspectors (I refuse to use the term “Revenue Protection Officer”), and there were plenty of reports of people getting shirty when told that actually, they were supposed to pay for this journey. A strange use for the bendy buses I learnt about today was by the Capital’s homeless. The night buses provided a measure of warmth and comfort, unofficially for free. Actually, a friend of mine once spent a week sleeping rough on the 24-hour non-articulated 285, so it is possible even if you don’t have a bendy bus. Just putting that out there. Not that I’m advising anything illegal.

Boris has been noticeably reticent about the cost of replacing the 10-year-old bendy buses with new models, and frankly I suspect the decision to get rid of them was populist first and practical second. Nevertheless, the bendy buses are finding new homes in other cities, where perhaps they’ll be a lot happier.

Why am I feeling sorry for a bus?

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Filed under Current events, London, Politics, Transport

Great balls of fire!

The midweek post comes a little early this time around, chums. Allow me to explain.

You see, once again, Yr. Humble Chronicler is doing a show. But no ordinary show. This time, Youth Action Theatre is spreading its wings somewhat and going for an all out, high-camp, rock ‘n’ roll musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet! Wooo!

If you don’t know the show, it’s… well, how can I describe it? It’s a spoof of sci-fi B-movies which is based loosely on The Tempest, set to a track of classic tunes from the 1950s and ’60s. It owes more than a little to Forbidden Planet, as you might imagine from the title, but also borrows liberally from just about every terrible science fiction film of that era. As well as pretty much everything Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s complicated.

The basic story is that the spaceship Albatross, under the command of the heroic Captain Tempest, makes the mistake of going on a routine survey expedition. As you know if you’ve watched any episode of Star Trek, in the future the word “routine” means exactly the opposite of what it does now, and the ship gets diverted to the mysterious planet of D’Illyria. There, they are greeted by the mad Doctor Prospero, his beautiful daughter Miranda and their camp robot Ariel. And then things start to go wrong. What is the terrible secret of D’Illyria? Who is the enigmatic new science officer? Where did Prospero get that outfit? All this and more will be revealed…

(By the way, I’m playing Doctor Prospero. Yeah, I do have to sing. Yeah, I am slightly bricking it.)

If science fiction campiness is not to your taste, I should mention once again our extremely rocking soundtrack. Good Vibrations, Shakin’ All Over, All Shook Up and Shake, Rattle and Roll are in there, along with a variety of songs that aren’t about vibrating at all, like Teenager in Love, Mr Spaceman, Great Balls of Fire, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Wipeout, The Monster Mash, The Young Ones… and that’s just the ones you’ve heard of. All live, performed by an awesomely talented cast, and also me.

Our production is going pretty all-out. We’ve got the Mill doing our special effects – that’s the Mill, as in, the people who do Doctor Who and Torchwood. I know, right? We’re going to have a live band on stage. We’re transforming the Hampton Hill Playhouse into a spaceship (not literally). It’s all going to need a lot of work, so Yr. Humble Chronicler intends to be mucking in tomorrow evening.

Anyway, if you’re looking for something fun to do next week, something that’ll put a spring in your step, the show runs 9th-12th November inclusive at the Hampton Hill Playhouse in West London. To book tickets, kindly click on this link. Blast off!

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Ten thousand thundering typhoons!

I’m not a huge fan of the concept of heroes. I find them generally rather unsatisfactory – I don’t see what’s so great about a character who’s so very good when it’s quite plain that there’s no other way they could be. I don’t know if that makes any sense. What I suppose I’m trying to say is that all too often, the character lacks any sense of realism. The more flawed the better.

This is why Captain Haddock is a hero of mine. He’s a bad-tempered, clumsy, middle-aged drunk. He’s impulsive, and prey to his own emotional outbursts. He’s a magnet for life’s little annoyances, whether of his own making or pushed upon him by whatever deity governs the Tintin universe. Yet at the same time, he’s also a very loyal individual with a strong sense of morals who is constantly battling his own failings to do what is right. This, I think is the appeal of the character – he is ultimately good, but it’s not easy.

Hergé, creator of the Tintin series, seems to have been Haddock’s biggest fan. The Captain was introduced in the ninth book, The Crab with the Golden Claws. In this, he was a purely supporting player, a pathetic alcoholic who hinders Tintin as much as he helps him. By The Secret of the Unicorn, two volumes later, he’s practically an equal protagonist. It’s quite clear that Hergé saw something of himself in the character, indulging as he did in the author’s own interests in exploration, fashion and the odd tipple. He also gave the rather introverted Hergé a means to work through and laugh at his own frustrations in life.

This is a rather longwinded way of telling you that I went to see The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn last night at Feltham Cineworld, which is perhaps the most un-Tintin location in the world. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m something of a fan of the original books, so this was a film I simply had to see by law.

On the whole, I thought it was a pretty awesome film. It mashes up The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and bits of Red Rackham’s Treasure, with elements of original story to give the whole thing an overarching antagonist.

For a Tintin geek, there was a lot to enjoy. As well as the three books the story is based on, I spotted references to The Black Island, King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Cigars of the Pharoah, Tintin in America, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, The Shooting Star and Land of Black Gold. That’s excluding the overt references in the title sequence. There’s a blink-and-you’ll miss it cameo by Cutts the butcher and an appearance by Le Petit Vingtième, the rarely-seen newspaper that Tintin actually writes for. No doubt a Tintinologist could find many more.

The animation is worthy of note. It utilises motion capture, a form of animation whereby a real life actor’s movements are rendered in CGI. Attempts at full motion-capture animation have an unfortunate tendency to fall into the Uncanny Valley (see The Polar Express), and based on the early trailers I feared this might fall victim to that. However, it’s not so – perhaps because the film doesn’t go for outright realism with its characters, but caricatures. After the initial jolt, you quickly become used to the animation and get absorbed into the world.

The attention to detail in rendering said world is breathtaking. The setting is fairly ambiguous in terms of time and place, but nevertheless a stunning amount of work has gone into every setting. This is very befitting of something based on the stories (if not the ligne claire art style) of Hergé, who researched his artwork intricately. Such is the quality of animation that despite the obviously exaggerated characters, I often found myself forgetting that what I was watching was actually a cartoon.

I have to say, the film falls down a little where it departs from the original books. Trying not to give too much away, the flashback to Francis Haddock’s confrontation with Red Rackham in The Secret of the Unicorn differs significantly from the original album, abandoning Hergé’s meticulously-researched and historically-accurate sea battle in favour of a conflict in which, how can I put this, a ship swings over another ship by the rigging. Red Rackham’s treasure is no longer brought over to the captured Unicorn from the damaged pirate ship, but is a secret cargo aboard the man o’ war (how much cargo space does a warship have, anyway?) – that’s fine, but if we’re saying the treasure isn’t Rackham’s to begin with, the film’s major antagonist doesn’t exactly have the motivation to go after it. Given that the antagonist was basically invented for the film, this is a slightly bizarre point. Complicating matters further is that by the end of the film, they’ve decided that the treasure actually was Rackham’s, from “plunder[ing] half of South America.” I’m guessing this line was to set up a sequel centred around The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun, but it complicates further a plot that doesn’t make much sense.

That being said, there’s a lot to enjoy about this film. It’s a fun old-school action adventure reminiscent that stands out from the kids’ movie crowd. It’s more cartoony than the original comics, certainly, but if you can let that go it’s a fresh take on Hergé’s world. And if audience reaction is anything to go by, your kids will love it.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Current events, Film and TV, Literature, Only loosely about London

If I were a rich man…

I hate money. Whoever said that money can’t buy you happiness was either a liar or very literally-minded.

You see, without going into too much boring detail, the nature of my employment is such that there is, occasionally, the possibility of my being without work. Now, to understand the significance of this, I’d like to take you on a journey across time and space, to a period long ago, back when it was… er, five years ago.

At that time, I also found myself unemployed, and went – for a very brief period – on the dole. Frankly, for the amount I got, it hardly seemed worth the effort. Anyway, a few months after I’d come off, I got a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions. It was a sinister thing in which they told me, quite sternly, that I was under suspicion of having committed fraud.

Well, this was a serious allegation, but I was quite sure there had been some misunderstanding. I went along to a little interview at which a middle-aged and slightly nervous-looking woman tried to act like a badass interrogator. She presented me with a letter in a manner that was possibly intended to be confrontational, but came off as if she thought it was about to explode. In this letter, National Savings and Investments confirmed that I had an account with them and, without getting too specific, there was quite a bit of money in it. This is a thing the DWP tend to frown upon when you’re applying for the dole.

Frankly, the whole thing took me by surprise. I’d never heard of this account, I’d never had any correspondence regarding it, even my parents weren’t familiar with it. I was asked why I hadn’t declared it, and I explained that I honestly didn’t know it was there. I also pointed out that there had been no activity on the account since 1994, and that it was unlikely, having been both unemployed and a student, that I would have gone without dipping into it. Unless I’d been planning to defraud the DWP since primary school, which is unlikely but possible.

Eventually I was free to go, it being determined that I had not been a child mastermind. My first move, as you might imagine, was to find out all I could about the account. Its origins were determined – it had been set up shortly after my birth and forgotten about. Next step was to get at that money.

Now, let me make this clear – National Savings and Investments hate you. I rang them up and explained the situation. They told me that I needed “a book” to get the money out. I asked how I could get this… “book.” They replied that I just had to tell them the last two transactions. I patiently reminded them that I hadn’t even known this account existed, and the chap happily explained that he could do nothing for me. So I tried writing, and received no reply. Eventually I gave up on the whole thing.

A few months ago – roughly five, in fact – it occurred to me that it might be sensible to try to get that money again. I was reminded of this by a call from my bank, reminding me of the existence of my credit card and overdraft, pointing out that these were costing me money every month and offering me a loan (which presumably would also cost me money every month). This NS&I account could take care of both of those, and isn’t that what those financial-advisor-type people are always telling us we should do with pecuniary windfalls?

So I went on the NS&I website to find out how I could get a new book. This had no information whatsoever. So I went to the Post Office (who run NS&I) and asked. I was told I had to write to the main office. Actually write. Compose a letter and send it. Now, I know the Post Office aren’t fans of the Internet, but for Christ’s sake.

So I did that. I included all the information I had. I didn’t know if it would be enough, because I had no idea what they required. The Post Office bods I spoke to seemed a little uncertain. I waited, and waited, and waited. After about three months, I was ready to write an angry letter, but then – at long last – I got a response.

It was a form. A form saying, “Yeah, you know that account, the one you sent us details about? Are these the details of that account?” Yes, I said, and posted it back. Then I got another form basically saying, “Are you sure these are the details of that account?”

This form also demanded a witness signature. No proof of identity, date of birth or address, they didn’t even specify who the witness should be. In other words, if an unscrupulous individual (other than me) got hold of the letter, they could just change the address details, fake a witness signature and get my book.

Eventually, a week and a half ago, the book finally arrived. I let out a whoop, as I was at that time living on beans on toast and the surprisingly nutritious gunk I’d scraped from under the fridge. I held off on buying a solid gold top hat, and went down to the Post Office. The photo of Postman Pat giving the finger should have clued me in that it wouldn’t be as simple as I thought, and so it was not. The woman at the counter explained that I would have to fill out a form, post it off and I would get the money in roughly two weeks. And I did ask – there is again no online facility for doing this, nor could I just give the form to them. Interesting fact – trying to get through a pane of reinforced glass really hurts.

After I’d recovered, I filled out the form. It asked for account details but again, no actual proof of ID beyond the book (which I’d have to physically send). Last week I got… a form identical to the second one, i.e. asking for my address, date of birth and an easily-faked witness signature. So I sent it off. Who knows what the next step will be? I tried reading some Kafka, but it offered little by way of practical tips. I’m starting to think maybe the Great Train Robbers weren’t bad men, just regular people trying to get hold of their savings who got pushed too far.

So here I am. I’ve been unemployed for four weeks, but I’m back in work on Monday. Going on the dole wasn’t an option, because of this account. But this account was of no physical use, because I couldn’t get to it. Meanwhile, I’ve been leading an existence of student-level poverty, with enough money to solve all my problems seemingly just out of reach. I don’t quite understand how my life turned into a 1980s sitcom, but there you go.

Anyway, to return to my starting point – money can’t buy you happiness, but I’d feel a lot happier knowing I can pay the rent next week.

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