Marital strife of my brother in law’s making

I’ve a bone to pick with my brother in law. My wife and I met up with him and my sister for a meal the other day. During the course of the evening, my bearded brother in law described a recent visit to get his hair cut. It’s a frequent bone of contention, with my sister making increasing levels of threats in order to get him to go.

So why am I thinking ill of my brother in law?

He was describing how the barber asked if he wanted his eyebrows trimmed. “No thank you.” he replied. “They annoy my wife.” The barber laughed and responded with his own reposte, “Ah but a happy wife, is a happy life.”

After the laughter died down, I’d never have thought that my wife would store that in her memory bank. Within the next 24 hours it’s only been used about eight times! For example:

My wife: “Can you take the rubbish out?”

Me: Yes in a minute.

My wife: OK but remember a happy wife is a happy life.

I’m going to need your help to come up with a suitable response. Answers on a postcard please!

Holiday Day 2: Chatsworth House and Bakewell

We received a lovely surprise at our breakfast table this morning with these beautiful flowers placed on each table. It wasn’t expected from a hotel like this. It’s a smallish family run affair, but has excellent friendly staff. The breakfast was OK if not outstanding. My wife had an oatcake with poached eggs. It was a bit dry, and the eggs were a little overdone. I had the Full English complete with real black pudding and fried bread. It was the sort of breakfast I’d have thought nothing of eating 25 years ago, but now felt guilty eating.

After breakfast we drove the short distance to Chatsworth House, home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire for 16 generations. It is regularly used as a film set, with Pride and Prejudice with Kiera Knightley a prime example. Set in stunning gardens, the house has changed a lot since the first Duke bought the house in the mid 1700s. There’s a stunning collection of art and antiques through the ages. The staff are all very knowledgable too, and are always available to offer insights into life of past residents.

Having gone around the house, we sat in the garden with an ice cream. Then it was time to wonder around the extensive gardens. To be honest we didn’t see most of them, largely because we were feeling tired. The good news is that the fairly priced entry ticket allows you to return within six months with a hefty discount. Not that we’ll be back anytime soon.

If you’re visiting with little ankle biters, the adjoining farmyard is well worth a visit. Apart from the usual rabbits, guinea pigs, and goats, there are cows complete with regular milking displays, a large adventure playground, and a loads of hens. It will keep youngsters amused for awhile.

Leaving Chatsworth, we headed for nearby Bakewell, a lovely market town. We spent a couple of hours wondering the streets and sitting by the river. We even found a Viennese Sausage cafe, unfortunately just as it was closing.

Tomorrow we have to head home, due to a family member falling seriously ill. Cutting short our holiday wasn’t an easy decision, but it is for the best. So we won’t be going to Buxton, and will have to wait to visit the Lake District for another day.

Holiday Day 1: Surrey to Matlock

This year we decided on a “staycation” for our holiday. We’ll probably go aboard later in the summer, but for now the weather is pretty good and England has so much to offer. We decided on a road trip around the north western side on England, taking in the glorious countryside of the Peak District, Lake District, and Yorkshire Dales.

Setting off for the 170 mile trip to Matlock, the weather was a mixture of cloud with occasional bursts of sunlight. Pretty good driving conditions, as I hate driving in the rain. The M25 behaved itself for once as we made it past Heathrow airport inside 50 minutes, and onto the M1 in one hour ten minutes. Admittedly it was a Sunday morning, but apart from the usual slow spots it was an OK journey.

We stopped off at the Newport Pagnell services for a comfort break and a bite to eat. You’re never short of a service station on the M1, especially in the southern section, with one roughly every 25 miles. I always find motorway services pretty soul destroying. They’re full of fast foot outlets and shops selling 1980s compilation CDs. Newport Pagnell isn’t an exception. Bizarrely everyone has heard of Newport Pagnell, but only because of the service station. Before the M1 opened, it was just a mere pin prick on the Buckinghamshire map. How many folk even realise it was mentioned in the Doomsday Book as they zoom past at 70mph?

As the distances between the motorway exits increased, so the weather deteriorated. Occasional short bouts of drizzle broke up the monotony of driving. We’d stopped off in Kegworth, Derbyshire. Why? Purely for nostalgic reasons. Back in the 1980s I used to have to come here for work. Back then it was a fairly sleepy town snuggled between the East Midlands Airport and the M1. I used to stay at the Yew Lodge Hotel at the top of the town, which was a fairly standard 3 star hotel. Now the place has become gentrified, with a large extension and a Marco Pierre White restaurant. The town still has a few nice pubs and some smart looking shops and cafes. Unfortunately it looks like the tiny (in every sense of the word) pub we used to drink in has gone. Probably for health and safety reasons, as with more than six people in it playing darts by the bar was a risky strategy. Not that it stopped us back in the day.

From Kegworth we decided to avoid the motorway and head through Derby on the A6 before heading on to Matlock. We did drive through Derby, but didn’t stop. Perhaps we should have, but we were got a bit fed up with the ring road. These abominations are the scourge of post war town planners. They may have thought they were a clever idea, but no one else has since. If you see signs saying “Ring Road West” and “Ring Road East” and nothing else, how the hell are you supposed to know which way to go?

Our hotel for the next few nights is a delightful little place in Cromford, about three miles south of Matlock. It used to be Sir Richard Arkwright’s home whilst he was building nearby Willersley Castle. Set in a peaceful valley yet just off the A6, the hotel is a lovely place with good facilities. They obviously cater for lots of weddings judging but the large gazebo and arboretum in the garden.

In the evening we drove into Matlock for dinner. As it was a Sunday, Cromford was largely shut, with only a couple or large pubs open which we didn’t fancy. Matlock wasn’t much different, but we did find a nice looking Italian. However we chose a place called the Herd Steakhouse just around the corner from the bridge. There’s a bar downstairs, and a restaurant upstairs with some wonderful views over the River Derwent. We chose a seat by the floor to ceiling window to get the full benefit of the wonderful vista. The food was OK if not spectacular, but then we didn’t go for their speciality steaks or meat skewers.

Returning the our hotel, we got speaking to the night manager. He said that Sir Richard Arkwright built the place as his family home, but as he became more wealthy decided to build himself Willersley Castle. Unfortunately it burnt down before it was finished. He started rebuilding it, but died before completion. An unfortunate happening, as the building itself is an imposing and stunning example of Georgian architecture. It’s now a hotel run by a Methodist charity.

Tomorrow we’re off to Chatsworth House near Bakewell, the home of the tart!

Could you be fooled by a phishing email?

Online safety should be at the forefront of all our minds. It only takes one momentary slip up to make the most secure environment go belly up. So what action would you take if you received the following email?

Spoof Email

Looking at the example above, you could be forgiven for thinking it looks like a legitimate internal message. It asks you to do something you may be expected to do occasionally (e.g. sign-off a policy). It even gives you advice about an application (e.g. Centrify) used to do this. So it must be legit.

Except in this case it wasn’t. It’s a test message created by our company’s security team to test we are paying attention to our online security. Thankfully quite a few of us asked our security team if this was a phishing scam before doing anything.

Email is a popular method of gaining access to personal or business data. Here are some key points to help you identify suspicious messages:

  • Check the sender’s email address. Look carefully to make sure the domain is correct. Hackers are smart and use lookalike domains.
  • Your gateway may be configured to block messages coming from the internet but using your domain. If so, if you can see it is a legitimate internal address, you know it has come from an account on your domain.
  • The steps above are highly effective, but fail if the sender’s account has been compromised. Don’t blindly trust that internal messages are always legitimate. The same advice applies for messages received via business or personal chat applications, especially those like Skype. You may have got the message because your friend or family member’s account is compromised, and you’re one click away from being compromised yourself.
  • To guard against a compromised account, check the message and any links in the message. Ask yourself, does the message make sense? Is it expected? Is the grammar correct? Do the links look suspicious? Use the Virustotal website to check if they are known bad links.
  • If in any doubt, ask your manager or phone the person who “sent” the message. Don’t use email / chat to ask if they meant to send it. If the account is compromised the hacker will reply!

Remember once you click it’s too late to think!

Think before you click
Think before you click

Adverbs make no sense

Has your partner ever asked you to clarify what you mean when you say, “I’ll do that LATER”? If so, help has arrived in the form of a crack team of language experts. They’re lobbying the UK Parliament to eradicate words that cannot be accurately quantified. They argue that words like SOON, QUICKLY, VERY, MORE, and AWHILE, add little information that isn’t already known, and paint an inaccurate picture that is open to interpretation.

For example, if my wife asks me when I’m going to cut the grass and I say, “I’ll cut it later”, she only knows I will cut it, but not when. In my mind that could mean after meeting Bill and Terry for a beer this afternoon, or maybe even later in the week? If I’d said, “I’ll start immediately after the football ends on the TV”, at least we’d have a sound basis for the start of negotiations!

Apart from restoring marital harmony, having to accurately quantify information has other uses. For example:

  • Saying Montreal is REALLY cold in the winter is not only obvious to most of us, but inaccurate if you’re from Siberia.
  • If I say, “I’ve a LOT of vinyl records”, just how many do I have, and it is “a lot” to you?”
  • If a company announces it is CLOSE to releasing their new product”, you can tell their press release has been written by their Marketing team.
  • If you’re asked if you can complete a task quickly, and you respond “Yes”, what are the expectations of both parties of when the task will be completed?

It’s a minefield. I just wish they’d start eradicating words and phrases like “24/7” and “dude” first.

What can we learn from religious fasts?

Depending on where you are in the world, the Islamic month of Ramadan has either started or is about to start. It’s a serious fast for someone like me, with no food or drink to be taken between sunrise and sunset.

Fasting is only one side of Ramadan. Another is ensuring you get enough sleep. In the UK the sun rises at around 5am at this time of year, and sets around 9pm. Throw in the pre-dawn prayers, and it means having to finish eating at around 3:30am. Assuming you break the fast around 9:30pm, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for eating and sleeping.

As an Irishman, I was brought up in the Catholic faith. Growing up I had little or no exposure to non-Catholics. Even when the family moved to London, I went to a Catholic school and mixed in Catholic circles. In short, I was a perfect example of how not to integrate.

We Catholics love a bit of fasting. When I was very young, it was always no meat on Fridays. That changed to being allowed fish. If you went back a generation or two, it was a complete Friday abstinence. Even now the “fasting rule” on Friday differs depending on where you are in the world.

Then there’s the “no eating an hour before mass” rule, which changed to an hour before communion. I never quite understood this change, as you could eat directly before leaving for mass and in most cases still make that pre-communion deadline, as this was received shortly before you left the church.

Our major fast is Lent covering the 40 days before Easter, although it isn’t really a fast. It’s more an opportunity to give something up. Like most young impressionable scallies, I was encouraged to give something up for the duration when I was young. Predictably most of us gave up sweets, knowing full well we wouldn’t last a week.

As an adult with a much deeper appreciation of various religions, it is clear just how different they are when it comes to fasting. Most fast at some time or other, but for quite different reasons. The one exception I’ve found is Sikhism.

Quite a few have short period fasts, and have different rules. For example Judaism, Buddhism, and Hindu have fasts around feast days or periods of reflection. Buddhism allows milk during fasts, whilst Judaism doesn’t allow any liquids. Hinduism’s rules vary based on local customs.

In the Christian faith even Lent has different durations. The Syrian Orthodox Church has it at 50 days, and the Coptics 56 days. Even then, one look of the wikipedia page on religious fasts, demonstrates how Christians are hopelessly split between the eastern and western traditions. And within those different churches from various geographical regions, that have different rules.

I’m tempted to try a sunrise to sunset fast for a day. I won’t do it for any theological reason, just to see what it feels like. I’ve gone without meals before, but hardly ever out of choice. To do so for 40 days, and to deal with the lack of sleep and logistical nightmare of food preparation, is something I don’t aspire to.

If I do, I’ll report back on my findings. Not today though.

Why I despise Eurovision

I’ve a friend who loves Eurovision. She has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of previous acts, and has been known to throw themed parties on the evening of the contest. Personally I’ve not seen the attraction of a contest since it became more about the contestant, the song’s staging, and making the song as controversial as possible.

Not that I’ve got anything against controversy. it is just that when a song contest requires controversy or an ac being so different that the ability to write and sing a song comes a distant second, it is time to look elsewhere for my entertainment. Whether it is a woman making chicken noises, heavy rock groups dressed in latex, or octogenarian babushkas, it is time to call it for what it is.

It is no longer a talent contest, but a contest to demonstrate just how avant garde you can be without upsetting people’s sensitivity too much.

Those last two words underline the issue, but when the status quo is upset by something other than the song, surely that shouldn’t be part of a song contest.

Do you agree? I’ll let you decide after watching the 2018 winning PERFORMANCE!



2018: A year of monthly challenges

As the last few chords of Auld Lang Syne disappear into the long and distant past, our minds turn to new year resolutions. Now I’ve never been one for making them, mainly because I don’t see the point. After all, if it was worth doing, why leave it until 1st January each year. Secondly, they’re mostly either unrealistic or not quantifiable.

This year I decided to do something a little different. Instead of doing something (or not doing something) forever, why not do it (or not do it) for a month. Then at the end of each month do something (or not do something) else. Oh and just to add a bit of spice to proceedings, every time I fail, I donate £5 to charity.

Things started predictably with “Dry January”, a relatively recent phenomenon where you detox by giving up alcohol. It’s a natural fit after the excesses of Christmas. I’m not a big drinker, so I started with an easy challenge. Only on one occasion did I slip up, and then because I forgot about the challenge. Unfortunately I’d already invited a work colleague for a drink before realizing, so I couldn’t exactly pull out. And I only had one beer.

February saw me give up using lifts. This was a major step up (sorry about the pun!) as I work on the 6th floor of our office building. Walking up and down those stairs at least three times a day was more of a physical challenge, but it helped my fitness levels. I only slipped up once.

March saw my hardest challenge yet. I gave up all sweets. That’s right. No cake, chocolate, or biscuits. I’ve had to pass on the cakes and sweet goodies folk have brought in to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Plus seeing folk go to the office candy machine near my desk was a constant reminder of the challenge. Not only that, but those occasional mid afternoon trips to buy an apple turnover or pastry were no more. As we draw near to the end of March, it is fair to say it’s been difficult, but not impossible.

In not sure what April’s challenge will be. I’d quite like it NOT to be health related, but the ones I have in mind are. Maybe it will be to take 15,000 steps a day. I have my Fitbit to help me, and I’m a keen runner so it shouldn’t be a big issue. What else should I try in the coming months. It needs to be challenging, without being impossible. As I’ve stated, I’ve occasionally transgressed. I don’t mind doing so, so long as I’m not bankrupted in the process!

My St.Patrick’s Day through the ages

About ten years ago I went to a comedy event at the Royal Albert Hall. One of the acts, Dubliner Andrew Waxwell, came on stage and asked, “Are they’re any Muslims here?” A few lone voices yelled back. Maxwell’s response perfectly summed up my experience of being Irish in the 70s and 80# in London. “Fair play to you. We love Muslims. We Irish LOVE Muslims. Why. Because you’ve taken the heat off us.”

When I was a child, we’d were able to buy shamrock from the local greengrocer in the week before St.Patrick’s Day. Shamrock was notorious for dying quickly, so we’d buy it and keep it moist until the day itself. On the day we’d all pin it to out coats and jumpers and wear it with pride. As time went on it became more difficult to buy shamrock. We’d source it through the Church or even from relatives back home, but eventually we couldn’t get it at all.

Being an Irish adult living in London in the 1970s and 1980s, wasn’t entirely easy. Racism still existed. The “No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish” signs may not have been as common as before, but that didn’t mean discrimination didn’t exist. Just because we have laws, doesn’t mean folk aren’t going to ignore it. I remember one conversation at work with a colleague after an IRA bomb had killed a passer by in Belfast. “I see your lot were at it again” was the flippant ill-judged remark. Pushing back diplomatically did little but entrench his position, so I did what most folk would do in this position. I walked away.

Many years later I’m married to an Iraqi Christian. We joke that because of our backgrounds, we’re both terrorists but that I’m an amateur and still on probation! Joking aside, what infuriates me about such ill thought out bigotry, is the association that because I’m Irish, I’m a terrorist willing to kill and maim. In the same way that not every Frenchman wears a striped t-shirt and cycles a bike with onions over the handlebars, I don’t condone activities that harm innocent individuals.

The 90s saw a sudden thawing in relations. Suddenly it was cool to be Irish. Nearly every High street had an Irish pub. The “Celtic Tiger” saw a resurgence in the Irish economy as tech company’s were attracted by an educated workforce. Riverdance cemented the Irish identity to the world in its own unique way. Seeing that performance at the Eurovision Song Contest still brings a lump to my throat. It perfectly captured the optimism of the day in a way that celebrated one of our customs in a modern, inclusive manner.

These days being Irish is just for the Irish. Every St.Patrick’s Day you’ll find folk in just about every bar wearing silly Guinness hats or wearing ginger leprechaun wigs. Yes anyone willing to look utterly foolish can be Irish for an evening, just so long as they get bladdered in the process.

17th March 2018 was a good St.Patrick’s Day. At 8:30am I joined around 400 folk for a run around our local park. Organised by the Park Run organisation, its a very friendly and inclusive event. A shoot out to any Irish in the event briefing, and I cheered back. One of the course marshall’s was dressed in a ridiculous leprechaun outfit, and cheered us on with an equally awful Irish accent.

Roll on a couple of hours and it was time for the big Six Nations game against England at Twickenham. Ireland had already won the Six Nations Championship, but had the chance of beating England and winning the illusive Grand Slam. Something they’d only done twice before. Talking to a friend of mine before the game, we both feared a fairly stale strategic game with lots of kicking. Whoever committed the least penalties would will. How wrong could we be. With Ireland 14-0 up inside 25 minutes and repulsing everything the England offensive line could throw at it, it was looking like an easy victory. And so it was, well relatively.

It’s been a good day to be Irish, but not every year has been the same. I remember the days when you had to keep your nationality under wraps. That’s a soul destroying experience. It’s a bit like being an gold medal Olympic athlete, but told you can’t tell anyone you won. I’m Irish and proud of it. I may not shout it from the rooftops, but I’ll never deny it.

So to Irish everywhere, or those that wish they were Irish, may I wish you a safe and very Lá Naomh Phádraig Shona.

Men. Just listen to us!

"You'll often hear people say: 'You are helping people find their
voices'. I fundamentally disagree with that, because women don't
need to find a voice. They have a voice. They need to feel empowered
to use it, and people need to be encouraged to listen."

Actress Megan Markle perfectly summarised the issues women face with this quote at a press conference earlier today.  Whilst the event wasn’t solely about women’s empowerment, it did give her an opportunity to speak out on a topic she obviously feels strongly about.

I’m glad she did. As a man, I consider it important that women should be able to speak out on matters that affect them in the same way as men. It hasn’t always been possible in the past, and isn’t entirely possible yet.

So how can men help women feel comfortable in society? For a start, we need to educate men (and women) on what is acceptable behaviour in the 21st century, but also be open to listening to their concerns. Rachel Parris on the BBC’s Mash Report gives us all a very useful lesson on how to do this.

“Welcome to womenhood!” What a killer throwaway one liner! Go Rachel!