Moans and groans

This magnificent folly in the woods has been opened to all at last

by The Codgers' Club Friday, April 11 2014

by Alan Watkins

Deep in the woods between Strood and Cobham stands a magnificent folly which – by all rights – should never have survived.

It annoyed the Dean of Rochester and so angered the bishop it was never used for the purpose for which it was conceived and built.

It was vandalised, gutted and (if the people responsible had had their way) might have been blown up.

Then a number of people said enough was enough – they believed the Darnley Mausoleum deserved to be saved for the community, history and the nation.

Last week their dream came true and it was finally opened to the public.

The floor has been rebuilt. Marble pillars lost when a massive tyre pyre burned the heart out of the two-storey building on Bonfire Night in 1980 have been restored. The original source in Italy could not provide the orange-red stone, so the National Trust got the final quarrying from a source in Spain.

According to rumours – and readers may know the truth – the original marble was removed after the fire and now graces several fireplaces in the Medway Towns. But that may be a part of the legend.

The mausoleum sits high on a hill in Cobham Woods, a short walk from Strood and also from Ranscombe Farm.

You need to know where it is to find it, walking from Medway. It is so easy to get lost in the overgrown woods and end up miles from the mausoleum.

The easiest way to approach it is from the war memorial in Cobham. Lucky drivers park next to the National Trust’s newest office, a converted barn overlooking the golf course and Cobham Hall. The unlucky park two miles away at Shorne Park – and pay.

Not like the second half of last century, when gangs would bring to the mausoleum cars, which, after being raced through the woods, would be set on fire and crashed into the dry moat or allowed to roll down the hillside until they set fire to the woods.

More than 100 wrecks were eventually removed by a charitable trust set up by Gravesham council and chaired by its former chief executive Eddie Anderson.

He was not there on Sunday morning when, without panoply or pomp, your scribe and his wife, by chance, were the first visitors to the restored structure.

We walked up with some of the volunteers who will now man the building each Sunday from noon to 4pm.

They will help visitors to understand the thinking, the expenditure and the value to north Kent of restoring the building.

Meanwhile, for my wife it was a long-dreamed-of visit with a special surprise on reaching the pyramidal-topped turret – she was invited by the chief warden of the park, Jonathan Ireland, to unlock the doors to the funerary chapel and become the first of what could be millions of future visitors.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Trying to get a handle on toilet DIY is plumb stupid

by The Codgers' Club Monday, April 7 2014

by Peter Cook

There are those who are competent at DIY. Those who are hopeless at it. And those who think they can do it, but haven’t a clue.

I fall into the latter category, as I discovered when I called round to fix the lavatory cistern in my daughter’s house.

“Aha,” said I, having removed the cover. “Essentially the diaphragm inside the cistern siphon has suffered a seizure and ceased to suck.”

“Easy for you to say,” my daughter responded.

“Not in these teeth,” I came back, quick as a cobra strike.

It was easy to see that the diaphragm was worn out. It’s a problem I am familiar with. My own diaphragm has seen better days as I am reminded every time I climb the stairs.

“Now if I just wiggle this bit here, and adjust the plunge lever, and ... oh my gosh!” I have snapped off the thing that closes the inlet valve and water is gushing forth as if from a water cannon.

“Make like the Dutch boy,” I shout, but my daughter has never heard the parable. I try to stem the flow with my own index finger but only succeed in spraying water over me, the bathroom, my daughter the cat and the dog.

It’s serious but not yet disastrous. The water is gushing into the cistern but escaping via the overflow. Something must be done or we’ll empty Bewl Water.

“Where is your stopcock?”

“There’s something outside under a metal flap.”

I find the tap but this cock has not stopped anything for some considerable time. I twist until I am first red, then blue in the face. But it won’t shift.

It’s Saturday – it would be wouldn’t it – there is no one I can call.

“Tell you what,” I say, “I’m dashing home for my plumbing box. If I can disconnect the cistern and fit a tap on the inlet pipe, we might yet save Bewl Water.”

When I return I have found a piece of flexible pipe and a tap. Gingerly I disconnect the cistern. Water gushes up like it was the Trevi Fountain. But there’s no time to toss in a coin and make a wish.

I fit the flexi-coupling, spraying water everywhere and ending up soaked. But it doesn’t work. The connection is not sealed. We need some fibre washers.

I dash into town and buy a packet, dripping all over the checkout girl and muttering something about a sudden heavy shower.

Back to my daughter’s house. Once more I disconnect the cistern. The pipe gushes worse than ever this time, because I have to fit not one but two fibre washers. Once more I tighten the nut on the flexi-coupling and attach the tap.

Hooray, the water ceases to flow.

Everything and everyone is drenched. But Bewl Water might yet be saved. It takes an hour to swab up the water from the bathroom by which time I am shivering with cold.

Sunday morning sees me in a DIY store looking at cistern systems. None of them are like the one I have just removed. Technology has marched on. I choose something I think may work.

Back at my daughter’s house I fit it, rigidly following the instructions on the pack. Disconnecting the makeshift tap I screw up the inlet pipe to the new fitting. There is some spray but not too much.

With some trepidation I try the handle.

A miracle has occurred – it actually works. A quick flip up for light usage and a more positive push down for the heavier stuff.

And that is how I came to save Bewl Water.

I celebrated in a way that, at the time, seemed most appropriate.

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Categories: Moans and groans

We saw these problems with the NHS coming

by The Codgers' Club Friday, March 14 2014

by Peter Cook

It’s deeply troubling that the A&E department at Medway Maritime has been marked down as unfit for purpose by the CQC. The people of Medway deserve better.

I feel sorry for patients but also for staff, most of whom I am sure are caring and work hard to provide a good service against impossible odds.

What makes me angry is that all the problems that beset the NHS these days were foreseen donkeys’ years ago, but clearly never acted upon. People have been talking about the “demographic time bomb” – which predicted a population top heavy with us oldies – for at least a couple of decades. They knew damn well what problems this would pose.

Why are people surprised that it’s happening?

When I covered health for the Medway Messenger, two big things were happening in Medway.

The hospital governing body was being turned into a foundation trust, which was supposed to give the financial flexibility needed adequately to meet future demands. Clearly that’s not happening.

And the PCT – of blessed memory – was working on expansion of the community nursing service, so that elderly and chronically ill patients could be treated in their own homes, relieving pressure on the hospital, particularly A&E.

A hospital, in the brave new world of the NHS, was to be only for serious cases. Everyone else was to be treated in their homes or at medical centres. General practitioners were to take on more community healthcare, but as we all know by the time you get an appointment with your family doctor, you are either dead or it’s got better.

When things go badly wrong with an organisation, it’s either because of bad management or lack of resources. In the case of Medway Maritime it’s both.

The £6m being offered by the government is too little, too late. It’s a sticking plaster solution to a problem that the most junior of student nurses could see hurtling towards us.

The after-hours GP service for pensioners should have been in place years ago, together with out of hours minor injuries clinics.

Politicians of all parties mouth on about being massive supporters of the NHS and the need for high quality services. What they need to do is to put our money where their mouths are and to get things properly organised. After all its their constituents’ lives at stake.

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Categories: Medway Maritime | Moans and groans

Nothing on TV? Just be a citizen journalist instead

by The Codgers' Club Monday, March 10 2014

by David Jones

Question: Are citizen journalists little better than the tiresome individuals who write rambling, often near incomprehensible, letters, to the editors of local newspapers? Discuss.

I am underwhelmed by the arrival of citizen journalists in the Medway Council chamber.

They even have their own row of seats. What next? Tea and biscuits?

The council provided seats for these self-appointed guardians of local democracy earlier this year after a big rumpus when some 200 stroppy members of the public were ejected from the chamber during a debate.

I suppose the council felt it had to do something to demonstrate how open and accountable it is.

But I don’t buy the proposition that “citizen journalists” add another layer of transparency to local democracy. Firstly, the very term “citizen journalist” offends me. They might be citizens, but they are not journalists.

As a journalist who spent some 40 years learning his trade, I find the idea that an amateur equipped with a notebook and/or laptop can somehow provide an accurate report of a meeting which might otherwise be missing from the official records quite laughable.

Most so-called citizen journalists have an axe to grind. Their blogs or tweets will be no more than their own spin-laden version of events. Fair, unbiased and accurate they won’t be. In other words, one of those letters to the editor which used to have me scratching my head and wondering if the author was at the same meeting our reporter attended.

Newspapers will often write a comment column on a council issue, but that will be accompanied, elsewhere in the paper, by a fair, accurate and unbiased report of a council debate on which the comment column is based. Citizen journalists are nothing more than individuals writing a ranting letter to the editor, but updated thanks to technology.

I’m not saying that people’s opinions don’t count, but let’s not elevate so-called citizen journalists to a status they don’t deserve and pretend they’re something they’re not. Anyway, it’s probably just a passing fad. A few hours of listening to banal debates and political point-scoring at a Medway Council meeting – or any council meeting – will be enough to persuade most citizen journalists they’d be better off at home watching EastEnders or Coronation Street.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Don’t confuse rapists with pathetic men who pinch bottoms

by The Codgers' Club Friday, February 28 2014

by Alan Watkins

There was a time when we Codgers were young and attitudes were different.

In those long-rejected times generations grew up, the Beatles came and went and the Rolling Stones remained.

It was a time when mini skirts were matched by flares, men wore heels and pinching a girl’s bottom was a laugh.

Although we did not recognise it, it was also the time when today’s rules were slowly being formulated.

Slap and tickle played a major part in our lives. It was a time when we collected autographs, sought the opportunity to talk with the newest stars, or looked for someone who rubbed shoulders with the famous.

Some stars were clean living, popular and easy to talk with. Others were the sort you were warned away from.

And sometimes you might not get the right advice. But we were growing up, and we learned from our mistakes (mostly, thank goodness, minor ones).

One I met several times was Roy Castle, a modest man who was one of the last multi-skilled stars to come out of the variety and vaudeville clubs.

I once asked for his autograph. “You don’t want mine,” he said, “you want.....” and he named someone he was walking with, on their way from the stage door for a quick break at the nearby hostelry.

Others would invite you to join them. That was a danger sign most of us recognised – and quickly beat a swift retreat.

Reading the evidence from one recent “big name” groping trial, I burst out laughing at the revelations of some of the victims.

The acts he was alleged to have perpetrated on several young women were (rightly or wrongly by today’s standards and rules of conduct) normal behaviour between the sexes in liberated Sixties Britain.

If the defendant had been found guilty after all these years then there are thousands of us... no, tens of thousands of us who would be equally guilty.

Gropers – male and female – are still around. These days it’s just as likely to be the woman who gropes as the man: after all, women sought (and grabbed) equality with both hands.

Society has matured, politicians scowl at such acts (unless they perpetrate it), and the courts enforce good behaviour.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not condoning what happened half a century ago. It was a different time, we were all feeling our way into the adulthood, literally and metaphorically. I do think, however, that there is a difference between what one DJ was alleged to have done at that time and what Jimmy Savile did time and time again.

The rules really were different, both legally and morally. Savile should have been caught and locked up. Rape and indecent assault, sex with a minor have always been beyond the pale. He knew it, yet he committed hundreds of such acts. The shame is he got away with it.

Touchy, feely gropers? They are pathetic and immature, and should be treated as such.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Wellies, waders... and now the blame game

by The Codgers' Club Friday, February 21 2014

You can tell when the flooding gets serious. Television reporters exchange ordinary wellies for those chest-high waders that fishermen wear.

Once they start delivering pieces to camera wearing scuba suits and snorkel masks, that’s it. I’m leaving the country.

The Medway Towns has been quite lucky. Our flooding comes from tidal surges and although we’ve had a couple, they are usually up and down in a day. They tend not to hang on for weeks like floods on the Somerset Levels or the Thames Valley. Of course, 1953 saw the big exception.

Already the blame game has begun. And it does seem to me that it’s taken quite a time to get the armed forces involved.

After the 1953 floods Royal Engineers were immediately out in force, sandbagging breaches in the sea walls, using their DUKW amphibious vehicles to rescue people from upper storey windows and retrieving stranded livestock.

How long has it taken to get that Chertsey sausage unrolled, given that the flooding started before Christmas?

The difficulty with British flooding is that it’s so diverse. You get the violent storms battering down sea defences. You get the inundation of land brought about by unprecedented rainfall. You get the overflow of rivers. And of course the tidal surges.

What we need is some kind of civil defence organisation that looks at the whole problem of climate change – and who in their right mind can deny that it’s happening? It’s no good dredging a river here, patching up a sea wall there and sacrificing a low lying area somewhere else. We need a co-ordinated plan. The first thing it should look at is establishing an effective force to support people. It’s disgraceful that so many have been abandoned to their own devices.

We need schemes to slow down the rate at which run-off water enters the rivers until they are unable to cope. We need to re-introduce meanders to those rivers, to slow down their flow and increase their capacity. We need farming measures that prevent impaction of the soil. And we need to limit hard surfaces in towns to allow better drainage.

There are dozens of things that need doing, but they should be part of a overall scheme worked out by experts and not carried out piecemeal at the whim of politicians.

Of course that will cost money. But I am guessing not as much as the floods are going to cost. Prevention is always better than cure.

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Categories: Moans and groans

It’s not such a little list as the bills mount up

by The Codgers' Club Monday, February 10 2014
by Alan Watkins

The Lord High Executioner’s little list of society offenders sprang to mind as I viewed my latest service charges.

Gas, electricity and water bills arrived within days of each other in January. They were laden with little extras that had me wishing Gilbert and Sullivan was alive today.

For those who have missed The Mikado, Ko-Ko’s list of offenders included people who annoyed him ranging from limp-handed people and anti-Brits to apologetic statesmen and know-it-all kids.

Well, my little list would include the people who think up ways of charging you for their costs – not the ones I cause, but the ones they incur like statements and answering inquiries caused by their bills. These are service charge inventors.

Currently (no pun intended), electricity starts with a daily 18p charge for my wife and me. Our gas has a 25p charge – every single day.

Now it might not sound much, but that works out at £156.95 over a non-leap year.

Water is not as much – but more complicated.

There’s £13.11 for fresh water (polluted with all the chemicals the water board insists we need for our teeth, our good and the saving of their pipes).

There’s another £11.41 for surface water drainage (whatever that might be), £5.45 for highway drainage – and £10.26 for sewerage.

These are the nice water people incapable of removing excess water from Somerset fields, or of storing enough to meet our regular droughts. Their charges recur every six months – and they face no competition for our business.

The total standing charges from these suppliers comes to a staggering £237.41. As if that wasn’t bad enough the electricity company holds on to hundreds more pounds as a protection for their finances. It’s cash from direct debits and standing orders which every so often they graciously repay... in part. In EDF’s case they accumulated more than £300 from me – based on charges they insisted needed to be paid up front.

Meanwhile, Southern Water eventually agreed to repay all the money they are holding against future usage: that comes to another £320 – after all the bills have been paid. They intended to hold on to £104 of that until I protested.

In return I have had to up my monthly payments which had come down in the third week of January from over £65 to £34, and then risen twice in the following week to £41.50 at the time of writing.

This is a household which Southern Water says is using less water than your average flat dwellers!

According to Rachel, the pleasant, calm, lady at the water company’s customer services, when they take my monthly payment is not fixed. My account payment could fall either side of the next bill in June. Why? They should be claiming the money so that customers make six monthly payments, then are billed – and paid back the surplus as quickly as the company demands any underpayments.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a pensioner or someone just occupying their first home: those surpluses are ours. It does not belong to the mega-companies who play short-term money markets with surplus cash and give the profits to their shareholders.

These are real society offenders who should be at the top of Ko-Ko’s list, because none of them would be missed.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Mental health care is just not up to scratch

by The Codgers' Club Friday, January 31 2014

by Alan Watkins

Mental illness always seems to be bottom of the pile when it comes to sorting out health problems.

Yet many of us are likely to suffer some sort of psychological breakdown.

According to Mental Health Foundation statistics, at any given time, 10% of children will have a mental health disorder.

And 25% of the adult population are likely to be affected in the course of a year.

So how can it make sense to close down mental health facilities at Medway Maritime?

It’s true that A Block is part of the old Victorian remnants of the old naval hospital. But conditions inside were not that bad when I was shown round some years ago.

Patients were sharing rooms, it’s true, but that’s not always a bad thing. And they were pleasant enough rooms, with reasonable facilities.

But even if they are not ideal, why close down essential services before they can be replaced with something better? Kent and Medway NHS Social Partnership Trust has had plenty of time to build a new unit if it chose to.

When challenged, all you get from them is the usual weasel-worded PR speak. We are told the closure will mean those who need in-patient care will receive it in modern accommodation. So that’s OK. Except it might be in Cumbria, as revealed in last Friday’s Messenger?

Surely people with a mental illness need the support of their friends and family. Not to be shunted to the other end of the country.

Medway has form for this sort of thing. I can recall when the council and the primary care trust decided to close down houses where mental health patients lived in small groups supervised by carers.

Of course platitudes were mouthed to try to convince us this was the best thing since sliced bread. Patients would be better off in modern units with state-of-the-art facilities, we were told.

But these units would be in distant, unfamiliar towns. Patients and their families thought differently from the authorities. They found the small-unit system worked well, with patients able to live fairly normal and happy lives within the community.

Despite the closure of these houses, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt tells us that care for mental health patients is improving. They are getting more community-based care. Weasel words.

The impact of mental illness on families can be colossal. I remember a woman contacting me in desperation because of her mother who had trashed the family home.

The mother couldn’t help it. She was seriously ill. But the daughter was at the end of her tether, and had to evict her mother because of the effect she was having on the children. It’s a hard thing to turn your own mother out of your home.

The mother ended up sleeping on benches in Twydall shopping centre. I contacted the local mental health services but was told there was nothing they could do. They were impotent.

The only solution was to wait for the woman to do something illegal so that she could be arrested and – if she was lucky – be given a custodial sentence, through which she may – just may – gain access to mental health services.

That’s the way we do things in the country. We sweep problems such as mental health under the carpet, out of sight out of mind, until it’s too late and the poor old police have to sort the problem out.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Broadband call centre causes virtual despair

by The Codgers' Club Friday, January 24 2014

Plagiarism is a heinous crime for any journalist, so I will openly admit that I have taken my cue for this rant from a column that appeared in a national newspaper under the heading ‘How BT turned me into a homicidal xenophobe’.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Call centres always send my blood pressure soaring, and if any call centre is going to send me to an early grave and put the final nail in my coffin it is one based in India and run by BT.

The author of the piece about BT was Simon Kelner (incidentally a former KM Group journalist). Describing how he was at the end of his tether when attempting to place an order for broadband, Simon wrote: “I was quickly on first-name terms with Gurinder and Rajpal but they were completely ineffectual – and, I’m afraid, the whole experience brings out the xenophobe in the best of us. Give me someone in Mansfield rather than Madras, I found myself wishing.”

Been there, done that, Simon. I’ve ranted before in this column about being driven to despair by polite gentlemen in downtown Bombay, or somewhere similar, who are simply unable to grasp what you are saying.

My latest life-threatening encounter with BT’s Indian call centre was just after Christmas. I decided to upgrade my broadband but cancelled the order soon afterwards because I thought I was being charged too much.

Inevitably, BT fouled it up. Despite receiving an email confirming the cancellation, some of the charges for an upgraded broadband service I didn’t want appeared on my next bill.

My heart sank as I found my complaint call being transferred to India.

There were long silences as Gurinder or maybe Rajpal “studied” my bill. There were more long silences after each question I asked.

Finally, I was asked: “So you want a new router Mr Jones?”

“No,” I replied. “I do not want a new router. I want a refund. I have already explained that to you.”

Another long silence.

“Ok, Mr Jones, I will definitely arrange a refund.”

When dealing with BT’s Indian call centre the word “definitely” usually means that what will happen is the exact opposite of what has been requested, so I awaited the next development with trepidation.

Predictably, he didn’t arrange for a refund.

I have long since given up complaining directly to BT’s helpline numbers when they mess something up.

BT’s best-kept secret is a web-based organisation called BT Care, which is accessed online via a chatroom called the BT Community Forum. Either rant at great length on the Forum, or send an email direct to BT Care.

Either way, one of BT’s first-rate team of troubleshooters (they call themselves moderators) will soon be on your case and sort your problem in double-quick time, which Robbie, based in Northern Ireland duly did.

With technology, BT is world-class. With routine admin, it is rubbish.

So why do I stick with BT? Am I a glutton for punishment? Despite the occasional stressful experience, I stick with BT because its broadband is among the best. And the valuable lesson I have learned from all my stressful experiences is that head-on confrontation with the BT monolith gets you nowhere. Attacking from the flanks, via the BT Community Forum, usually ensures that David will triumph over Goliath.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Smartphone and fags or food on the table?

by The Codgers' Club Sunday, December 15 2013

by David Jones

All right, call me Scrooge, or worse, if you like, but foodbanks present me with something of a moral dilemma.

Of course, there are many families struggling this Christmas for genuine reasons, but there are also many struggling because they are their own worst enemies. They buy luxuries instead of essentials.

Yes, let’s help those genuinely in need, but let’s not turn foodbanks into a crutch for the irresponsible who spend their benefits on state-of-the art mobile phones, X-boxes and fags at £7 a packet and then complain they haven’t got enough money to pay for food or heating. And there are plenty of those about.

I hope the weeding out process is robust, so that those who have only themselves to blame for the mess they are in don’t benefit at the expense of the genuinely deserving. Foodbanks, laudable though they are, run the risk of making the culture of dependency on handouts even worse unless they are carefully controlled.

Talking of festive dilemmas, I get really irritated by the charities which send out unsolicited items in the run-up to Christmas. You feel guilty if you don’t send a cheque by return, which is the object of the exercise.

Over the past couple of weeks, a CD of Christmas music from the Royal British Legion and a pack of Christmas cards from a disabled charity have dropped through our letterbox. Good causes, both, but I don’t want to be forced through a kind of moral blackmail into buying things I don’t want.

We buy our Christmas cards from our local Cancer Research shop, as over the last two years we have lost one dear friend to cancer and have two other close friends who are fighting it. We can’t support every charity, so I regret that those unsolicited items go straight in the bin, which is both a shame and money wasted in production costs and postage the charities concerned can ill afford to lose.

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Categories: Moans and groans

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