Thursday, September 22, 2011

Down and out in Haywards Heath

I decided to volunteer at the Citizens Advice Bureau. It seemed like a good idea - as well as doing something socially valuable, it would keep me active, give me some structure in my life (get me out of bed in the mornings) and give me experience in a sector which I could potentially be interested in working in.

The nearest sizable bureau was in Haywards Heath - "the average sized town between London and Brighton on the A272". I had an interview with the area manager on Monday and and arranged to go in on Tuesday to get an idea of how they work.

On Tuesday morning, I arrived at Hassocks station to discover that Southern Railways' networked ticket machines were all simultaneously out of order. The ticket barriers were open and I was advised to pay my fare at the other end. On arriving at Haywards Heath, I found commuters forming an orderly queue as the staff rallied round in true blitz spirit, quickly and calmly selling tickets to the assembled punters.

I went in to the CAB again today to pick up a few more tricks. Arriving at Hassocks station in the morning, the ticket machine would not take my money and again the barriers were open. Assuming it was a similar problem to the other day I took the train, expecting to be greeted by friendly staff working hard to make up for the failings of information technology at the other end.

Instead, I was greeted by a revenue protection officer. "Any particular reason you didn't buy a ticket, sir?" I politely explained the situation, hoping it was plain to see that I was no longer 17 years old and trying for a free ride. "And why didn't you use the ticket office, sir?" he asked me. I explained that since the gates were open, I'd assumed the ticket office was closed, (a not infrequent occurrence on that particular under staffed station).

Long story short, he wasn't having any of it and in the faux polite manner of officialdom, issued me with a penalty fare of £20, (the standard fare being about £4). Again, no longer being 17, I considered my options and rather than getting hot under the collar, swearing at him or jumping over the barrier and running away, I gave him my correct name and address, paid the £4 I had in my pocket and signed the Penalty Fare Notice instructing me to pay the balance within 21 days. He was good enough to point out my right to appeal and advised me "don't say you were running late."

This set me up badly for the day and the fact that the CAB, through no fault of their own, didn't really have anything for me to do left me stewing all morning only to be reminded of the issue again when I had to make use of the station to get out of Haywards Heath.

I came home still feeling tense and genuinely a little upset. I knew the Revenue Protection Officer was only following the letter of the law, but who really believes them when they say they have no discretion in the matter. Too bad I'm not a leggy blonde or a little old lady.

On my way home, I considered stopping to buy a nice bottled ale from the shop. Discounting that, I considered stopping in the 400 year old village pub for a pint of Harveys (the local brew). Again, caution got the better of me. On arriving home I tried drinking tea, reading The Guardian and listening to Radio 4 in the kitchen to relax. It didn't help much. I tried juggling with devil sticks in the garden (usually very relaxing). It loosened me up a bit but I still felt bad.

Finally I went up to my room and leafed my way through mine and my brother's combined record collections. There's something very special about vinyl, its feel and the tactile nature of the process one goes through in putting it on. Combined with the classic tunes of Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd taking me back to the time when I was 17, I began to feel better at last.

I'm now off to the pub for that pint of Harveys with my dad.

*Additional research about Haywards Heath from an invaluable resource, I'm sure you'll agree.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The 'late evening' garage.

We ran out of milk at around 9.30pm tonight. Tomorrow being Sunday, I thought it prudent to get some in immediately rather than attempting it on The Lord's day. Who knows how far we'd have to venture to find somewhere open and the thought of a day without proper tea fills both my mother and me with dread.

As it was raining, we took the car to the late night garage at the other end of town, only to find the shutters coming down at 10 o'clock. Taipei or London this may not be, but it ain't the Outer Hebrides either.

I swear I remember many occasions in the distant past when, after catching the last train from Brighton and before finally heading home, my friends and I sat on the wall outside the garage eating pasties and smoking cigarettes with only the alcohol in our blood to protect us from the cold and rain. Halcyon days.

It took another 3 miles to find somewhere open. I placed the milk on the counter and was asked by the cashier if I wanted anything else. "No thanks," I said cheerfully.

She pointed to the chocolates lined up by the till and said "Mars bar, only 66 pence?" as if reading from a script.

"No means no," I replied as politely as I could. What really irritated me was being put in a position where I had to force myself not to be rude to someone who was only doing as her employer insisted.

I want the convenience of the 24 hour garage but given that my reaction to her patter was probably comparatively civil, I wouldn't want to man it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


In the spirit of keeping my chin up and looking like a respectable member of society, I got my hair cut today. After cutting my hair, during which time we'd discussed strategies for going bald gracefully, the barber asked me if I'd like him to trim my eyebrows.

Oh dear. Next it will be nose hair.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


For most of the last ten years, I've either been paid in cash, or into my Taiwanese bank account. My UK account remained open only for occasional UK internet transactions.

All this means that when I returned, I had no idea of my PIN number. Even when I'd used my UK debit or credit card in Taiwan, I hadn't needed a PIN, a signature would do - and I never caught anyone looking at it!

On Saturday, I went to a friend's 40th birthday party at a pub in Brighton. For the past couple of weeks I'd been restricted to borrowed cash since the DWP were vacillating over whether to give me any money, but with about a fiver left in my pocket, the payment had finally come through. Into my bank account.

Usually, it's quite simple to take something to a counter, try to pay for it and when your card is rejected, be humiliated and take it back. Beer is not quite like that. You can't put it back into the barrel. So, accompanied by a new found friend, I went to the bar with a couple of possible PINs in my head, on the understanding that if I got it wrong he'd get the round in and I'd sort one out once I'd found a way of accessing my money.

Fortunately, I got it right first time and got the round in. The feeling of relief or freedom even, after an uncertain transaction clears is quite a rush.

When I went back a second time, it seemed sensible to keep a tab open, despite paying as you go being the norm in the UK. They ran through an initial transaction, gave me a temporary receipt and said to come back to complete the payment with PIN when I was finished.

When the pub closed at around midnight I was taken by surprise with half a pint still in my glass. In these days of relaxed licensing hours that seemed pretty early to me. So I approached the bar to close the transaction only to be told that everything was shut down and they'd already forced the transaction without the PIN!

If I'd known they could do that...

Sunshine and Showers

It's not only Britain that has changeable weather conditions. However the expression, oft used by weather forecasters, "sunshine and showers" seems uniquely British.

On a good day you might expect 10 minutes of rain, followed immediately by rays of bright sunshine breaking through the clouds and lighting up the freshly washed foliage that makes up England's green and pleasant land. And then rain again a few minutes later.

As I sit writing, out of the window I see dark clouds overhead, while the trees beneath them are brightly illuminated by the sunlight hitting them from out of my field of vision.

The weather is, supposedly, a British obsession, something we talk about when we have nothing else to say. Perhaps it is even one of the things (apart from our language) that still holds the English, Scottish and Welsh together. And if talking about the weather is one of our social fillers (in Taiwan it is food - ni che bao le ma?), I'd better get used to the language used to describe it.

And the clothes to endure it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


The great danger is slowing down, losing momentum - which strictly speaking is not inertia but deceleration (or even reverse acceleration) - but unless the ghost of Isaac Newton is reading this, we shall speak of inertia.

Returning hits you like an eighteen wheeler. Then you pick yourself up and start moving forward. And then...false starts, quicksand, running through treacle. Take your pick.

The initial plan was to get a teaching assistant job and as I did that I could clarify my feelings about teaching, look into my options and potentially apply for PGCE or GTP programmes. Appointments were made, term ended and Plan A became, at least temporarily, defunct.

Unfortunately, other than getting careers advice and writing this blog, there doesn't yet appear to be a Plan B. Now term has started again there is Plan A.ii. which is looking out for any emergent TA vacancies, but it's not a wholehearted plan.

I'm left aware that writing is one of my skills, part of my portfolio - but unsure of a way in which I can apply it to a career and make enough money to support my wife who will be in the same position as me only worse in six months time!

Suggestions welcome!


The thing about being on the dole is that you have so much time on your hands - and none of it is truly your own.

There is no distinction between jobseeking time and free time so there's always the nagging feeling that you could be doing something constructive and that what you are doing is not it. Unless you are looking for a very specific job, there are always more places to look and more jobs that could potentially be applied for.

Earlier in the summer, it was easy. I was applying for teaching assistant positions and there were a limited number of secondary schools that were within a reasonable distance. Each of them had a website with a vacancies page so all I needed to do was open up all the websites and check if there were any vacancies, apply for any that there were, and then I'd done all I could in terms of direct job searching for the day.

Now, with most of the TA jobs filled I have a broader job search - meaning it has no end. There is no real distinction between 9-5 and the evenings and no distinction between weekdays and the weekend. At any point I could be using my time "constructively" and this has the perverse effect of making me use my time less constructively. With no boundaries, constructive things are easy to put off and leisure activities such as taking a couple of days to go camping leave one feeling that it's an undeserved guilty pleasure. I long for a 'real' Friday night!

It's a bit like being self employed but without the cash.

The aftermath - or lack of it.

In the past, I cleared up after parties. Now I'm grown up, I tidy up beforehand!

In preparation for my barbecue, I did the hoovering, cleaned the bathroom, made up a spare bed and generally put the place in order. Afterwards there was little more to do than put the garden chairs away and load the dishwasher! There was a time when it would have taken an army of hungover lads an hour or so to straighten things out before starting again. There was no morning beer this time.

The barbecue went well. There were eight people, myself included and consequently ample food and drink. With 3 friends from Taiwan and two from Japan there was plenty of talk of Asia, ex pat living.

It seems we got the last of the summer too. By Sunday Autumn had arrived in the form of an Atlantic depression driving rain in waves at 45 degrees.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tough love.

I should point out, I genuinely love and miss Taiwan, for many reasons. I love England for other reasons. Living as an expat, or indeed an ex-expat, one has a complicated relationship with identity and place. Some would say it's difficult for an expat to truly have a home ever again.

Generally, expats have chosen to leave their homeland. And they've chosen their adopted home. This leaves them in a position to simultaneously slag off and wax lyrical about both their country of birth and the one in which they live now.

So to underline the fact that I love Taiwan, here is a poem I wrote about it, after Sir John Betjemen and Slough - though I think his feelings may have been more unequivocal. Those that have lived there will understand.

Come friendly bombs fall on Taipei,
It should not be allowed to stay.
Its buildings drab, its skys dark grey,
It looks like shit.

Come friendly bombs fall on Taoyuan,
So much improved it will be when,
It's open farmland once again
And not a dump.

Come friendly bombs fall on Taizhong,
Its architechture's really wrong,
And though it's better than Kaohsiong,
That's no excuse.

Come friendly bombs fall on Kaohsiung,
By now its time has been too long,
And ev'ryone will sing a song,
When it is flat.

To all of those who love Taiwan,
You must accept what's to be done,
We must not be afraid to say,
From bottom up's the only way.

Booking a barbie.

With my parents away and several friends remaining to catch up with, I decided to have a barbecue last Saturday. A grown up version of Hippy Hotel house parties of old.

I created an event on Facebook, and in keeping with the trend for online disclosure of previously private information, allowed everyone to see who I'd invited and how many were coming. By Friday afternoon, I had one definite, three maybes, twenty one awaiting reply and ten noes. The definite being me!

Those data are not quite fair considering some of these people have actually spoken to me. Nevertheless, the response was sobering. While it says little about the strength of my friendships, it speaks legions about the somewhat isolated position in which I find myself.

Interestingly, a few people said they couldn't come to my late summer barbecue because they already had plans for the bank holiday - that happened to be the previous weekend and of which I was only vaguely aware.

If you have a late summer barbecue, make sure you book it for the weekend on which society expects barbies to be held, and send out those invites early before pesky families book up your friends' time.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Home alone - aged 36

With plenty of spare room, my childhood home was known as The Hippy Hotel, the Hippy being me (even after a crew-cut) and the Hotel being a 5 bedroom Victorian semi with enough space to absorb a few teenagers. In the well proportioned semi-basement kitchen was a large pine table perfectly suited to whiling away the hours reading The Guardian accompanied by litres of tea, cheese on toast or the occasional omelette . "Would you like a cup of tea, Mrs Wilsdon" was enough to keep my mum sweet. That "Toby's kitchen" comes up in nostalgic conversations two decades later and is known of by wives and girlfriends who never set foot in the place, is testament to the value of a good room, and the domestic atmosphere fostered by my parents.

My parents have gone on holiday.

When I was younger, this could only mean one thing. Within hours of their leaving, a troupe of boy-men would turn up at The Hippy Hotel, armed to the teeth with everything we needed to waste ourselves away for the following two weeks. Some of the ingenious technology we developed was truly impressive.

On one such occasion, in between getting wasted at night, we took it upon ourselves to dig a first world war trench across my mum's vegetable garden. We'd actually started  the day before they left and got down to about 5 feet deep before my mum had caught us at it and told us to fill it in. Having spent several hours digging, we decided to cover it with branches, leaves and topsoil, somewhat like a Punji trap, and hope she fell for it, not in it. When she walked straight over the top, my heart was in my throat. She survived to go on holiday and we continued digging down to about 8 feet. We planned to cover the trench with planks and about a foot of topsoil so we could have a secret smoking den accessed by a tunnel from the adjacent graveyard while my mum grew vegetables on top. We were perhaps a little over ambitious, letting our imaginations run ahead of our capabilities and resources. On the day before my parents were due back, we made an executive decision that the planks were about to buckle and the project must be aborted. Having filled it in, we bought in fresh supplies and returned to the kitchen.

I'm 36. Not 18. I wasn't expecting to relive old times. The novelty of having a place to yourself has been worn away for most of my friends (and me) by, having a place to themselves. And then filling it with kids. This leaves me rattling around a large Victorian house wondering what to do with myself.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The big lunch - who's the newb?

Last weekend was The Crescent annual open air lunch. It was held in the front garden of The White House, one of the larger, detached houses and there was a good turnout with over half of the households present. Everyone brought something in the way of food and drink and naturally there was more than enough to go around. Three generations were represented, children, parents and grandparents. I was the only grown-up child. I was the only one to have grown up in The Crescent for that matter.

The event is loosely connected with The Big Lunch, a thoroughly commendable scheme which encourages communities to have lunch together in the street (British weather permitting) and according to its website, involved close to 1 million people this year. I say loosely connected because The Big Lunch was on 5th June, nearly three months previously. The other residents of the Crescent obviously have similar ideas about time keeping to my family. I received my 18th birthday present from my parents six months late - mostly because none of us could think of anything I actually wanted that did justice to the occasion. That's another story.

I dressed for the occasion, wearing my ironic ITW t-shirt (Taiwan/Toby Wilsdon, geddit?), and prepared to meet the neighbours. The funny thing was, though most of them had lived here for years, all but one were "newbies" in my mind, and even she arrived in the mid 1980s! I knew the immediate neighbours by name (they've both been here for over 10 years) but everyone else had to be introduced. "...and you must live in the O'Meara's house."

Having been away for 10 years, it felt slightly odd talking to these people and asking their names and how long they'd been members of the community I'd extracted myself from. Slowly it dawned on me that my parents were now the elders, having lived here 10-20 years longer than anyone else. Some roles change. Others don't.

Follow by Email