The Return of Winterval

One Christmas tradition in my household is marking the appearance of the first Winterval story in the British press. Some time in late November or early December, you could always guarantee that one of the tabloids would take some innocuous council memo, link it with the Winterval meme and concoct a “war on Christmas” story.

That all came to an end in November 2011 when the Mail printed a correction admitting that it was wrong about Winterval. Last year I didn’t see a single Winterval story.

But memories are short in the British tabloids. So this year it’s back. And it’s the Daily Mail that has resurrected the story. A story published on their web site yesterday has the headline “She may as well have wished us Happy Winterval!’ MP who sent out Happy Holidays card faces backlash for ‘marginalising’ Christmas“. Lib Dem MP Lorely Burt has sent out a Christmas card that commits the heinous crime of wishing her constituents “Happy Holidays”.

And the Mail wastes no time at all linking this to Winterval. The article says:

The row harks back to the Winterval furore in Birmingham in the 1990s, a season of public events over Christmas organised by the city council – a move widely considered politically correct so as not to offend non-Christians

And there’s even a sidebar – “Winterval Remembered” – which tells a (rather biased) version of the Winterval story.

I’ve tried to post a couple of comments on the story pointing out the paper’s previous correction about Winterval. But comments on the article are moderated and neither of my comments were published. I wonder why.

So, welcome back Winterval. You’ve been missed. And Happy Winterval to all my readers.

p.s. It’s worth pointing out that Kevin Arscott’s excellent debunking of the Winterval myth is now available as an Kindle book – The Winterval Myth: A Festive Tale of Bad Journalism.

Update: @bigdaddymerk has pointed out a great example of a journalist either making quotes up or (at the very least) putting quotes into people’s mouths. The story contains this:

Resident Adam Higgs complained: ‘She may as well have wished her constituents a Merry Winterval since that is the name Birmingham City Council once used to seemingly marginalise use of the word Christmas.’

Do you honestly know anyone who would give a quote like that?

Mail Misinformation

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a story about the London Borough where I live. It was entitled “The brightest spot in Britain: Wandsworth named brainiest place with 54% of residents having a degree“.

The story did pretty much what you’d expect from the headline. The ONS have produced study which measures the percentage of the population that has degrees. And Wandsworth came top of the list. Not really all that interesting.

What grabbed my interest was a throwaway line in the middle of the article.

For decades, Wandsworth was the only place in the country that didn’t charge council tax and now its 300,000 residents still enjoy the lowest rate.

Now, I’ve lived in Wandsworth for long time. I moved to Earlsfield in 1988, moved to Tooting a year later and then on to Balham in 1991 where I’ve lived ever since. I’ve paid my share of local taxes to Wandsworth Borough Council and I’ve paid close attention to what I’ve been paying in that time. And what “Daily Mail Reporter” writes here, just isn’t true.

When I first moved to Wandsworth, local taxes were paid in rates. And they didn’t really bother me as they were part of the rent I was paying. I started paying rather closer attention in the financial year 1990/91 when the community charge (aka the poll tax) was introduced. That was a tax on people rather than a tax on property, so it was no longer part of my rent (my rent didn’t go down though – funny that!) and I had to pay it myself.

For the first year my poll tax bill was about £140. In the second and third years it was nothing. Wandsworth manage to balance the books without asking their residents to pay anything. I think that is what the Daily Mail is incorrectly referring to. It wasn’t the council tax and it went on for two years, not decades.

The year 1992/93 was the last year of the poll tax. It was replaced with council tax. I still have most of my council tax bills and I’m happy to show them to the Mail. Most years I have paid something around £900. The second half of the Mail’s claim is certainly true – our council tax is definitely one of the lowest in the land. In the twenty years of the council tax there has never been a year that the residents of Wandsworth haven’t been asked to pay something.

But because of some half-remembered story about the 91/92 and 92/93 poll tax, the Mail reporter has fabricated this fact. And, because it has now been published in the Mail, it effectively becomes true for a lot of the population. “I read it in the paper” is a slightly better attribution than “I heard it from a bloke down the pub”.

I’ve emailed the Mail’s “Corrections and Clarifications” column giving them the details of this error. I’ll let you know if I hear anything from them.

Update: I’ve dug out the stack of council tax bills from my filing cabinet. I have bills going back over ten years. These are for a property in valuation band F. The early ones are actually a little cheaper than I remembered.

  • 2002/03 – £575.43
  • 2003/04 – £837.44
  • 2004/05 – £861.69
  • 2005/06 – £880.34
  • 2006/07 – £929.37
  • 2007/08 – £976.68
  • 2008/09 – £985.05
  • 2009/10 – £984.84
  • 2010/11 – £984.84
  • 2011/12 – £984.59
  • 2012/13 – £980.11
  • 2013/14 – £990.56

Remarkably cheap, I agree, but no sign of decades without being charged council tax.

Update 2: I got an reply to my email this afternoon. It came from an anonymous person at the Daily Mail. It said:

Thank you for your email and for bringing this unfortunate error to our attention. We will amend the article in the way you suggest.

And, indeed, the article has changed. The sentence in question now reads:

For two years in the early 1990s, Wandsworth was the only place in the country that didn’t charge “poll tax” and now its 300,000 residents still enjoy the lowest rate.

Which is better, as it makes it clear that we only had a couple of years of free poll tax. But it’s also still slightly confusing as it implies we currently pay a low rate of poll tax. Which is nonsense, as no-one in Britain has paid poll tax for twenty years.

There’s a “updated” timestamp on the article which has been changed to show that it has been changed today. But, disappointingly,  there’s no indication of the changes that have been made.

Also, my anonymous correspondent was silent on whether or not they would be mentioning this in their “corrections and clarifications” column. I’ve asked for clarification.

Insurance Update

Regular readers will know that two and a half weeks ago, my kitchen ceiling collapsed. A few people have asked me how things are going. Here’s an update. It’s not a happy story.

I’ve been talking to Aviva to work out what needs to be done. I took out my buildings insurance through my bank, First Direct, but apparently they farm all of their insurance out to Aviva. On the day that it happened I made an appointment for Aviva’s surveyor to come round and look at the damage. It happened on Wednesday and I was given an appointment on the following Tuesday. Six days seemed a long time to wait, but there didn’t seem to be any alternative.

So I took Tuesday off work and waited for the surveyor. Twenty minutes before the end of the eight to one window that I had been given he called me to cancel the appointment. His car had broken down. Of course, I can’t blame him for that, but a good company is one that can deal with unexpected problems like this. He told me that someone would call me and make alternative arrangements.

I stayed at home for the afternoon, but no-one called me.

Two days later (Thursday 25th) I tried to call them to find out what was going on. But I called after 5pm which is apparently when all their customer support people got home. Frustrated I did what anyone would do and tweeted my anger.

Those tweets were noticed by someone in Aviva’s social media group who replied, sending me his email and asking me to send him full details. Which I did.

The following day I got an apologetic-sounding phone call from an Aviva customer support agent.  He claimed that the original surveyor hadn’t told anyone that the appointment had been cancelled and offered to set up another appointment. Having already taken three days off work for this (two to deal with the emergency and one to wait for the Aviva surveyor) I was loathe to take more time off (I’m freelance and every day off is a day I don’t get paid for).

My wife was out of the country so we set a provisional date for this coming week, after she gets back. But I said that what I’d really like was for them to find someone who could see come round out of normal office hours. The agent said that he would see what they could do and that someone would call me back. I bet you can guess what is coming.

And you’d be right, of course. Another week has passed and no-one bothered to call me back. So it looks like my wife will be dealing with this in a few days time. At one point I optimistically hoped that the work might all be done by the time she got back. How naive was I?

So it’s two and a half weeks since the ceiling collapsed. I still have  huge hole in my kitchen ceiling and a shower that I can’t use for fear of it leaking again. And I have no idea when anything will move forward. Right now I wouldn’t be surprised if nothing was fixed by the end of summer.

The worst thing is the impression I get from Aviva that no-one there has the slightest interest in helping to fix this problem. I’ve never had to call on them before and, based on this experience, I hope I never have to again. I really couldn’t recommend them at all.

An Interesting Evening

(But the “Chinese curse” kind of interesting)

This evening I got home at my usual time, picked up my post from the doormat and was sitting on the sofa reading it. Suddenly I heard an almighty crash followed by the sound of running water. It was coming from the kitchen. I ran in and found this.


And this.


The ceiling had collapsed, scattering rubble and water everywhere. And water was still pouring out of the hole. Looking up into the hole, I saw this.


It seems that something had been leaking into the lagging for a long time. The lagging had been soaking up the water, getting heavier and heavier, until today was the day it got too heavy for the ceiling to support it any more.

I got on the phone to our buildings insurance people. They have registered my claim and are sending a surveyor round next Tuesday (six days seems rather a long time to wait). Then I got in touch with Aspect to get a plumber round to see if he could work out what was going on. While I was waiting for him, I cleared up the most important bits of the mess – cleaning and drying the chairs and moving the table out from under the drips. The plumber arrived about an hour later and started to investigate.

What he found seemed to bear out my theory. But the question was, where was the water coming from. The bathroom is directly above the hole, so there were plenty of suspects. But he soon tracked it down to the shower and fixed it. Then, before he left, he ripped out the wet lagging so that there was no water left to drip on the floor.

So everything seems to work properly again. I haven’t had to turn the water off and there’s no longer water dripping into the kitchen. There’s just rubble and water all over the the kitchen floor and a big hole in the ceiling. The insurance company will pay for someone to fix the hole, but I’m going to have to do as much as I can to tidy up. I’ve done some this evening but I’m bored and going to bed now. I’ll do some more tomorrow.

But this certainly hasn’t been the evening I had planned.

Some of you will remember that we had a lot of work done in the house in 2010. The leaky shower was fitted as part of that work. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the shower has been slowly filling the ceiling with water since then. Bloody builders.

Amanda Palmer vs The Daily Mail

I’ve obviously been slacking in my Daily Mail watching duties as this completely passed me by.

Two weeks ago, the Mail published a write-up of Amanda Palmer’s appearance at Glastonbury (don’t bother following that link – it’s really not worth reading). I say “write-up” rather than “review” because they didn’t mention her songs or the performance at all. No, they just fixated on one aspect of the show.

At some point during the show, Amanda’s bra rode up and for a while you could see her left nipple.

That’s what “Daily Mail Reporter” thought was the most interesting part of her set. That’s what he chose to write a whole article around. Oh, and a little bit at the end pointing out that her fans were annoyed that the BBC didn’t broadcast her set.

Of course they had a photo too. Which they published so that their readers knew exactly what they should be getting enraged about. The comments soon filled up with Mail readers who felt it was important to tell us that they had never heard of her. And others who were impelled to share their disgust at the fact that she doesn’t shave her armpits. It was all deeply depressing.

But this was all two weeks ago. Why am I telling you now?

Well, last night Amanda Palmer played a gig in London. And she got her revenge. As she came on for her encore, she sang this (warning: probably not safe for most workplaces).

She specifically asked us to film it and share it as far and wide as possible. So this is me doing my bit.

This video just surpassed Martin Robbins’ Fuck You Daily Mail talk as my favourite anti-Mail video.

Update: Found a higher quality version of the video.

Three Tom Robinson Gigs

I’ve been thinking about Tom Robinson recently. There’s an anthology of the old Tom Robinson Band recordings coming out on Monday and on Tuesday I’m going to see him at a show celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of Power in the Darkness. But this has all got me thinking about the first three times I saw him play. They were three very different gigs.

Ipswich Gaumont – 10th April 1979

Growing up in north Essex, the Ipswich Gaumont was nearest place that we could see mid-level bands. I went there many times between 1978 and 1981 (at which point I moved to London and going to see bands became much easier).

This was one of the dates on the tour to promote the Tom Robinson Band’s second album, TRB Two. Somewhere I still have the programme from the tour (really just a double-sided print folded in half) – I should find it and scan it in.

I don’t remember much about this gig. And what I do remember is probably slightly mixed up with a gig from this tour that was broadcast on Radio One at about the same time. I recorded that broadcast (in the time-honoured manner of putting a microphone next to the radio and glaring at anyone who dared talk) and listened to it a lot over the years. I only lost it when I threw away all of my cassettes about ten years ago. I believe that the “Wycombe Town Hall” gig that is included on the new anthology might be the same broadcast. I’m looking forward to hearing it again.

That was the only time I saw TRB. The next two gigs were very different. I can’t even remember for sure the order I saw them in.

Islington Folk Club – Summer 1982

I was living in a City University hall of residence in Islington and when I heard that Tom Robinson was playing at a folk club just round the corner, I couldn’t believe it. I was sure it couldn’t be the same Tom Robinson, but I went along just in case.

And, of course, it was him. This was the first time I became aware of Tom outside of TRB and the performance was very different to the previous one. Tom played a lot of songs that I heard for the first time that night and now know well. In particular, I remember 1967 and a cover version of Walk on the Wild Side.

I can find no mention of this show anywhere on the internet. I don’t think I dreamt it, but I’d love to have some evidence that it actually happened. Was anyone else there.

At the time I was social secretary at The City University. So at the end of the gig I approached Tom and asked if he would be interested in doing a similar show at the Students Union. He suggested that I should contact his agent. I did that, but the agent didn’t seem at all interested in finding Tom gigs so nothing ever came of it.

Bloomsbury Theatre – 1982(?)

It was certainly a theatre in Bloomsbury, but I’m not 100% certain of the name. This was a very strange night. Tom was playing support for The Passions (remember I’m In Love With A German Film Star?) but there was another support act which was a one-act play. There may have been some comedy involved too. I don’t really remember Tom’s set. I think it might have been the first time I heard Atmospherics.

This page on The Passions’ web site at least confirms that something like this did happen. It says:

Next came the question of how to promote the album. For some long forgotten reason the band were unwilling to tour at that point and so together with Cairo Management came up with the idea of doing a week of variety shows at the Bloomsbury Theatre in central London instead. ‘New Variety’ or ‘Alternative Cabaret’ was taking off at the time with the CAST theatre group running shows at pubs across London. Quite how a band such as the Passions fitted into this concept is puzzling to say the least. However the idea was followed through and acts were booked including a strange little play about someone who lived inside a sofa, the band’s friends Kevin McNally and Veronica Quilligan (who acted as comperes in addition to performing comedy sketches) and Tom Robinson.  The show was booked for five nights and apart from the first night, ticket sales were abysmal so the band pulled out after only two shows. As a result of this the band were sued for loss of earnings by the theatre group performing the strange play.

I guess I’m lucky that I saw one of the first two shows. Was anyone else there? Can you share any more memories of the night?

After that I’ve lost track of the number of times I saw Tom play. But it was a lot. Largely at festivals or at his annual gigs for fans. It’s been a while since I saw him though. I’m really looking forward to seeing him on Tuesday.

Pete Waterman and Girl Guides

Pete Waterman is, of course, a complete idiot. I’m sure everyone reading this is fully aware of that fact. But I wonder if the producers of BBC Breakfast knew just how big an idiot he is when they invited him to be their guest newspaper reviewer this morning. Perhaps they were just desperate to find someone concious who was willing to be in Salford at 7am on a Sunday morning. Or perhaps they were relying on him to say something stupid – in which case he didn’t disappoint.

On the section I saw, he picked on the story that the guides are dropping references to god from their oath. It was clear that Waterman isn’t in favour of this change, but it took him a while to come up with a coherent reason. First he babbled about “tradition” and “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” before coming up with this gem

All religions have a god. It didn’t say which god they were talking about.

Let me just unpick that for you. Waterman is obviously coming at this from the perspective of a typical Daily Mail reader. He thinks that the reason for the change is so that the non-Christian religions don’t get offended. He thinks it’s Allah and friends that are the problem here. I bet he was a couple seconds away from claiming it was “political correctness gone mad”.

But, of course, that’s not what this change is addressing at all. The majority of of non-Christian religious people will have no problem at all pledging allegiance to “god” because (as Waterman very nearly gets right) “all religions have a god”.

No, this change addresses a different problem. According to the 2011 census, 25% of the population have no religion. And that’s the people that this change is for. 25% of potential Girl Guides were either avoiding the Guides or taking an oath that meant nothing to them. Those girls can now happily join the Guides without having to swear an oath that they don’t believe.

It’s a good change of course. One that opens up the Guiding movement to a whole new group of potential recruits. I can’t see why anyone would object to it. Well, certainly not if they’ve understood the reason. Waterman clearly didn’t.

Oh, and perhaps someone could send Waterman a beginners guide to comparative religion. You really don’t need to look very hard to find a religion that doesn’t have a god. Buddhism springs to mind.

This is why you should think twice before inviting a record producer to comment on current affairs. Although I suppose it’s also why I should stop watching Breakfast News.

Jessica London

Recently, I started getting unsolicited email from a company called Jessica London. They sell women’s clothes and they seem to think that I’d be interested in all of their latest offers. I have no idea where they got my email address from. I know I have never dealt with them so it’s not a case of me forgetting to uncheck the “please spam me” box when registering with them or anything like that. In fact they have been using an email address that I never use for those kinds of purposes.

But I think they’re a real company. So today I decided I’d use the unsubscribe link in their email to see if that would actually remove me from their mailing list. I know this is a risky strategy, but I like to live on the edge sometimes.

The link took me to a page where I could tell them why I was unsubscribing. There was a series of radio button – which means I could only select one of them. It’s interesting to note the reasons that they think it’s worth tracking.

  • Receive too many emails from Jessica London
    Well that’s true, but I don’t think it really gets to the heart of the matter
  • Email content wasn’t relevant to me
    Also true, but misses the point
  • I no longer plan to shop at Jessica London
    I never had any plans to shop at Jessica London
  • I am cutting back my spending on clothing
    That’s not the case. I’ve never spent that much on clothing
  • I prefer to stay connected via Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
    I like to connect to people via social media – but not to brands that I have no interest in
  • Other

In the end, I chose “other”, hoping that they would then give me a text box where I could write “because you’re a bunch of obnoxious spammers”. But no such box appeared. So they just know that I had “other” reasons for unsubscribing.

I was left with no alternative other than to write this blog post in the hope that Google will help them discover my actual reason for unsubscribing.

Public Wifi

We’re finally reaching the stage where public wifi is becoming ubiquitous in London – at least when you’re indoors. It’s now quite strange to be somewhere that doesn’t have wifi available. But as it’s all supplied by commercial operators, it can all get a bit confusing. I know a few people who leave wifi turned off on their smartphones because they’d rather rely on the 3G connection (which always works) than a wifi connection that doesn’t work because they haven’t logged on to the providers service.

It would be nice if these providers all just used the standard WEP or WPA security protocols. These both prompt you for a password when you connect to the network. Your device can then store the password and always connect you whenever you’re within range. That’s probably how you have your home wifi set up.

But that’s not how the commercial providers do it. They want your to actually log in to the network. That might be so that they can trace each users’ individual network traffic. Or, sadly more often, it’s probably because they want to show you a web page covered with lots of lovely adverts (or collect your email address so they can spam you). This is a rather broken approach as it assumes that the first network request that you make will be to a web page – so that they can interrupt the request and show you their login page instead. Often your first network request might be an app (perhaps Twitter or Foursquare) which won’t know what to do when it gets a login page back rather than the app-specific data that it was expecting.

Recent Android versions try to deal with this (perhaps other platforms do too). As soon as you connect to a network, they make a request and try to work out whether you need to log in. If you do, they will tell you so. It’s all rather non-standard, but it’s the device makers trying to make the best of a bad situation.

If that was the worst of it, then public wifi wouldn’t be too bad. Most people would be happy to use it. But there are two other things that some wifi operators do which serve no purpose other than annoying people.

Remember I mentioned how the network will interrupt your first request and redirect it to the login page? Once you’ve logged in, a polite service will complete your original request and redirect you to the page you were originally trying to visit. A rude service (and there are plenty of them about) will complete the request by redirecting you to another page on their web site – assuming, no doubt, that you can never show people too many adverts.

That’s really annoying. But there’s one more thing that wifi operators do which makes that pale into insignificance.

They make you log in again after a certain period of time. This makes me really angry. Picture the scene. You go to a pub and the second thing you do (after buying a round, of course) is to check in on Foursquare. For that you need to connect to the network, so you jump through all the connection hoops. Then you put the phone back in your pocket and start to enjoy a conversation with your friends. Half an hour later it becomes vital that you know the exact date that “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” reached number one. So you reach for your phone to look it up on Wikipedia. Only to find that you need to go through all the log in rigmarole again.

This kind of experience is commonplace. And it leads to one of two outcomes. Either people turn their wifi off because it’s all too much of a faff (and then venues start to decide that it’s not worth having wifi as no-one uses it) or, alternatively, people keep jumping through the hoops and come to believe that this broken and frustrating experience is just how public wifi has to be. And that’s just not true.

Do you run public wifi? How is it set up? Please consider making it as easy as possible for people to use your wifi. What’s the point of annoying your customers?