Money From HMRC

I got a letter from HMRC this morning – to my company, not to me personally. It basically said “we’ve been looking at the PAYE you paid in 2010/11 and it looks like you’ve overpaid by [a surprisingly large number of pounds]“.

Now 2010/11 was the year that I was having some difficulties with my accountants. The difficulties eventually got so bad that I switched to my new accountants (who I’m still very happy with). So it doesn’t really surprise me that something went wrong that year, although the amount (it’s about 25% of the PAYE/NI I paid that year) is impressive.

What really surprises me is the tone of this letter. Having told me that I’ve overpaid (and, helpfully, pointed out the exact extra payment that I made) the letter goes on to say:

Before I can agree to either a refund or a credit, please let me the reason the overpayment has arisen

And:

Please complete the enclosed P35D giving a full explanation as to how the overpayment occurred.

Below are some example of reasons I cannot accept to justify an overpayment

  • Duplicate payments with no evidence to explain why
  • Statements such as ‘Payment(s) made in error’ with no further explanation
  • The overpayment is due to monthly payments which do not match our records
  • Any other explanation without evidence to support it

I’m finding it hard to read that in any way other than “we know we’ve got some of your money but you can’t have it back until you’ve explained in detail just how crap your record-keeping is”.

You’ve got my money. You know it’s my money. Either my accountants or I screwed up in some way. There’s no more detailed explanation than that. Just give it back to me, you bastards.

Week Notes 3

Blogging

I wrote a piece about the ECHR and Christianity. The kind of thing this blog used to be about all the time.

Health

My weight is still stalled at around 14 stone. I lost a bit last week but then put it back on again over the last couple of days. I know exactly what the problem is – I’m not exercising enough. But the weather isn’t exactly conducive to the kind of long walks I was going last year.

I’ve signed up to Patient.co.uk’s MyHealth programme in the hope that it will galvanise me into doing something.

In other news, I was at a gig last week and realised that I could see the act a lot better with my glasses on. These are the glasses that are supposed to be for reading a working on a computer – not for looking at a singer fifteen metres away. I guess it’s time to have another eye test. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up wearing glasses most of the time.

Training & Speaking

Lots of training courses looming. Not much going to prepare for them. Must pull my finger out and do something about that.

Gigs

I saw Sinéad O’Connor at the LSO St. Lukes. She was great. I’m already booked to see her again in March.

TV

Started to watch Utopia. That’s all very confusing. But it looks like it will be interesting. We’re also watching Roots for the first time for over thirty years. I had no idea that LeVar Burton played Kunta Kinte.

Photography

I started uploading photos from our South African holiday. It’s the first time that I had really used the Nikon D90 that I bought eighteen months ago. I’m pleased with the results. I should really spend more time taking photos.

ECHR and Christianity

Today was the day that the ECHR published its verdicts on the four Christians who had claimed that their human rights had been violated by their employers preventing them from acting in ways conducive to their faith. The four cases were as follows:

Nadia Eweida works as a check-in assistant from British Airways. She wanted to wear a cross necklace visibly at work and BA said that all jewellery had to be concealed. BA have since changed this uniform policy to allow staff to display symbols of faith.

Shirley Chaplin was a nurse who was asked not to wear her cross necklace by the hospital where she worked. They said that it was a health and safety issue as the cross could be grabbed by a patient.

Lillian Ladele was a registrar for Islington Borough Council. She refused to carry out civil partnership ceremonies as her church does not condone homosexuality.

Gary McFarlane was a relationship counsellor who was sacked when he refused to give sex therapy guidance to same-sex couples.

All four took their cases to the ECHR after failing to get satisfaction from various UK employment tribunals.

The ECHR upheld Ewieda’s complaint, but overturned all of the others. This seems to me to be an eminently sensible solution. In reaching the decision, the court weighed the human rights of the complainants (i.e. their freedom to follow and express their religion) against other factors.

In the case of Ewieda the court decided that there was no real reason for her not to wear a cross necklace at work. As I said above, BA had already changed their uniform rules in line with this long before the ruling was published.

In the case of Chaplin the court decided that the health and safety issues raised by the hospital outweighed her freedom to express her religion. In other words, your freedom to express your religion can be restricted if it could cause a danger to others or to yourself.

In the cases of Ladele and McFarlane the court decided that the equality issues outweighed their rights to express their religion. It’s important that everyone can expect equal service from their local council and their relationship counsellor so it’s acceptable for an employer to take action against an employee who feels unable to offer their services on an equal basis to all customers. In other words, your freedom to follow your religion can be restricted if it makes you unable to conform to equality legislation.

I think this is an important and useful ruling. It’s basically saying that if your religious beliefs are at odds with the law then you’d better leave them behind when you enter the public arena. It also says that, yes, you have freedom to practise your religion but that there is a hierarchy of human rights and that this one is pretty near the bottom of the pile. Don’t expect it to survive a confrontation with just about any other human right.

Over the weekend a large group of Catholics wrote to the Telegraph saying that the proposed equal marriage laws could threaten their religious freedom. When I tweeted about that letter, I (semi-)joked that I couldn’t really see a problem with that. We can now see that the ECHR agrees with me – society’s demand for equality will trump religion’s demand for bigotry. And that is, of course, exactly how it should be in a civilised country.

One other interesting point about this story is the way that much of the media has reported it. To take a couple of examples, the BBC headline is “British Airways Christian employee Nadia Eweida wins case” and the Daily Mail’s (which seems to be in a state of flux) is currently “Christian British Airways employee tells of joy as after European court finds she DID suffer discrimination over silver cross”. In both cases the editor has ignored the majority of the decisions and focused on the complaint that was upheld. Of course, both stories go on to mention the other cases, but if you read the comments you’ll see that both stories seem to have a large proportion of readers who haven’t got beyond the headline before commenting and don’t realise that this isn’t the victory for Christianity that they seem to assume.

I see this as a victory for secularism. You can believe and do whatever you think your religion wants to believe or do but if those beliefs and action clash with what society expects, you will lose.

Week Notes 2

Blogging

A review of the gigs I saw last year. And a new classic album post.

Health

Weight is slowly coming down. Annoyingly, it has stuck as 14 stone for the last two days. Need to start doing more exercise.

Speaking and Training

Haven’t done enough to prepare for all the training that is coming up in February. Perhaps I’ll do something about that later today.

I submitted a couple of talks to YAPC::Europe, a Perl conference that will be in Kiev in August. One of them has already been accepted.

Technology

I bought a Raspberry Pi. The plan is to run XBMC on it. Hope to get round to setting it up over the next couple of weeks.

Gigs

I saw Caravan on Tuesday. I’ve never listened to Caravan but they’ve always seemed to be the kind of band I should listen to. They were good, but I haven’t been inspired enough to track down loads of their material.

While I was watching them I couldn’t shake the idea that they were a banded formed by bank managers and retired policemen.

Films

I saw Life of Pi last weekend. I enjoyed it a lot. I read the book many years ago, but I had forgotten most of the details. It was the first time I’d seen a film in 3D when the 3D effects didn’t seem completely pointless.

Then last night we watched Cemetery Junction. I’d been meaning to see that since it came out. It was ok, but there was nothing really there that we haven’t seen dozens of times before.

The Beatles

Still catching up on classic albums. Here are my thoughts on The Beatles by The Beatles (that’s the album we all know better as The White Album).

Some Historical Context

I was six when this came out. I don’t remember it being released, but I have vague memories of singing Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da when I was young. I probably got it from the Marmalade version that was in the charts.

The first I can remember really being interested in The Beatles was when all of their singles were re-released in 1976. I remember deciding that I preferred The Stones to The Beatles. I still think that The Beatles are overrated. But this is definitely amongst my favourite Beatles albums.

The rest of this post will be written as I listen to the album. Oh, and for the first time in this series, it’s a double album.

The Songs

1. Back in the U.S.S.R.

One of the all-time great album openers. It’s all pretty basic stuff, but something about it makes this a great song. It’s short too – less than three minutes. Of course, the basic idea of the lyrics is ripped off from the Beach Boys.

2. Dear Prudence

Another great song. One of Lennon’s best, in my opinion.

3. Glass Onion

Another good one from Lennon. Pretty strange lyrics; talking about a number of older Beatles songs.

4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

As far as I’m concerned, this is the album’s first mis-step. We’ve established previously that I’m not a big fan of reggae and this childish white man’s reggae is even worse. I mentioned above that I remember singing this when I was a child. The “when I was a child” is key there.

5. Wild Honey Pie

This is really dreadful, isn’t it? I really don’t know what McCartney was thinking. Mercifully short though.

6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

I should hate this too. It’s really childish. But something about it makes me smile. Not Lennon’s finest hour though – by some considerable distance.

7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The best thing that George Harrison ever wrote. This is fantastic.

8. Happiness Is a Warm Gun

This is ok. It’s not great, but I certainly wouldn’t skip it. End of side one.

9. Martha My Dear

Side two starts with McCartney trying to write a music hall style song. It really doesn’t work.

10. I’m So Tired

This is more like it. Lennon sings the blues. Brilliantly. I think my Lennon/McCartney bias is showing in this review.

11. Blackbird

The guitar on this is quite pretty. Still not a particularly interesting song though.

12. Piggies

When I was 14 I loved this. Now I think it’s embarrassing. Hard to believe it was written by the same person as While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

13. Rocky Raccoon

Terrible.

14. Don’t Pass Me By

Ah… Ringo. This is pretty simplistic stuff. but I really like it.

15. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?

Another one that I enjoyed a lot when I was about 14. Hate it now.

16. I Will

And finally McCartney proves that he can write something simple and effective. It’s not outstanding, but it works.

17. Julia

This is one of my favourite Lennon songs. I don’t understand why it’s so obscure. Hardly anyone seems to know it. End of side two.

18. Birthday

A rock birthday song really shouldn’t work. And, yet, somehow it does.

19. Yer Blues

Love this too.

20. Mother Nature’s Son

Hate this one.

21. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

Ambivalent about this one. It’s ok. Nothing special. Ridiculous lyrics.

22. Sexy Sadie

Originally entitled “Maharisha”, this is about Lennon’s disenchantment with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I quite like this, but it’s not one of his best.

23. Helter Skelter

Another of the album’s classic tracks. Surely everyone loves this. From the initial guitar thrash to Ringo’s “I’ve got blisters on my fingers” it’s brilliant. And, bizarrely, it’s a McCartney song.

24. Long, Long, Long

When I’m listening to these albums, there’s always at least one track I don’t remember. And this is it. I don’t remember it because it’s just average. It’s written by George Harrison and could be an obscure album track on any of his solo albums. End of side three.

25. Revolution 1

This is controversial. It’s the same song as the rockier version that was released as the b-side to Hey Jude – that’s the version that everyone knows. This is a mellower acoustic version that isn’t to everyone’s taste. I like both versions though. In my more “Che Guevara” periods I’ve spent hours discussing how, in this version, Lennon changes the line to “if you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in”.

26. Honey Pie

Another horrible McCartney effort.

27. Savoy Truffle

And this is another distinctly average song from Harrison. Whoever wrote a good song about a recipe? Oh, MacArthur Park, I suppose.

28. Cry Baby Cry

This is ok. Nothing special. Side four really isn’t very good.

29. Revolution 9

Why did Lennon think it was a good idea to submit an eight minute sound collage for inclusion on the album? Why did the other members of the band approve it? Perhaps they were short of material. I didn’t listen to this all the way through.

30. Good Night

No. This doesn’t really do it for me at all. Not a great way to end the album.

In Summary

Not as good as I remember it. There’s actually a lot of filler there. But it does have half a dozen or songs that are as good as anything The Beatles recorded. Perhaps it would have been better as a single album.

2012 in Gigs

Here’s an overview of the gigs I saw in 2012. I saw 36 gigs during the year. That’s quite a lot down on 2011, but that’s partly because I broke my leg and didn’t go to gigs for six weeks.

I saw some larger gigs than in the previous year. I saw Radiohead, The Killers and Elbow all at the O2. In all cases the bands were great, but the venue is horrible. I also went to Hyde Park to see Paul Simon, which was definitely one of the highlights of the year.

I think that I didn’t see anyone more than twice last year. But there were at least four acts that I saw twice – Antonio Lulić, Alessi’s Ark, Tegan and Sara and Suzanne Vega. I saw Tegan and Sara on two consecutive nights – their own headlining gig at the Forum and then supporting The Killers the following night.

I saw more than my fair share of unimpressive gigs. In particular, Dexys and Sparks (both, coincidentally at the Barbican) were two hugely disappointing shows.

Here, in purely chronological order, are the gigs I enjoyed the most in 2012. I wanted to list a top ten, but I couldn’t get the list smaller than twelve.

  • Sinead O’Connor – Haven’t seen her live since a Finsbury Park Fleadh about twenty years ago and I was worried that she’d be a bit rubbish. But she was so good that I’ve already booked to see her twice this year. Her latest album is really good too.
  • Suzanne Vega – As I mentioned above, I saw her twice during the year. I think the first one (playing acoustic in the Union Chapel) was just better than the other (with a band, playing the whole of Solitude Standing at the Barbican). But they were both great nights. She’s definitely now on my list of people to see whenever I can.
  • Amanda Palmer – An Amanda Palmer gig is always awesome. This gig at Village Underground was no exception. Her new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, is great. It’s a shame that she has cancelled her 2013 tour because a close friend is really ill – but I completely understand why she did  it.
  • Paul Simon – It was the 25th anniversary of the Graceland tour and Simon got together as many of the original band as possible. This was a fantastic evening.
  • Kathryn Tickell – Something a bit different. Kathryn Tickell’s show pulls together lots of music and talk from her native Northumbria. It’s low key, but enthralling.
  • Kate Rusby – How has Kate Rusby been making records for twenty years? This show, celebrating that fact, was all kinds of amazing.
  • Amy Macdonald – This was a bit of a surprise. I knew I quite liked Macdonald. I’d bought her first two albums. I’d even listened to them a few times. So I bought a ticket on a whim. I’m glad I did, because this was a great night. I’m going to see her again at the Palladium later this year.
  • The Divine Comedy – The day after the Amy Macdonald gig I was back in the same venue for Neil Hannon’s 42nd birthday party. This was the second Divine Comedy gig I’ve seen and they’ve both been fabulous. I must really start listening to more of their records.
  • The Magnetic North – I saw Hannah Peel playing as part of two bands this year. She’s in John Foxx’s new band The Maths, but I much prefer The Magnetic North. I don’t know if this is a permanent band. So far they’ve recorded one album, inspired by Orkney, which they played at this gig.
  • Beth Orton – Since I got back into going to gigs a few years ago, Beth Orton has been top of my list of people to see. And to finally see her in a venue as lovely as the Union Chapel was incredible. This is probably my gig of the year.
  • Stealing Sheep – I saw Stealing Sheep four times in 2011 but for various reasons I missed most of their London gigs in 2012. So I was really determined to get to this gig at the Bush Hall in December. It was a year (almost to the day) since I had last seen them and it was really interesting to see how much they had improved in that time. I mean they were great to start with, but now they are phenomenal.
  • Antonio Lulić – Yes, Antonio is a friend, but even if he wasn’t I’m sure I’d still consider him one of the best live acts currently playing the circuit. At my local pub (which is also one of my favourite venues) he put on a great end of year show where he played for an hour. And the whole set is available to stream from SoundCloud.

Classic Albums 2012

I thought it might be interesting to have an index of the classic albums I reviewed in 2012. So here it is.

Album Artist Rating
A Night at the Opera Queen
Highway 61 Revisited Bob Dylan
The Harder They Come Jimmy Cliff
The Specials The Specials
LemonJelly.ky LemonJelly
Led Zeppelin 4 Led Zeppelin
Nevermind Nirvana
Machine Head Deep Purple
System of a Down System of a Down
Let it Bleed The Rolling Stones
Songs of Faith and Devotion Depeche Mode
Rumours Fleetwood Mac
The Joshua Tree U2
Green REM
OK Computer Radiohead

Week Notes 1

Let’s start the year as we mean to go on and get the first week notes post of 2013 out of the way.

Blogging

Yesterday I wrote a brief review of the year and started to catch up on classic albums. Other than that I haven’t written anything for three weeks.

Health

As expected, I put on a bit of weight on holiday and ended the year about half a stone heavier than the lightest point I reached in 2012. But it’s now a new year and I’m galvanised to repeat last year’s success.

Currently that involves being careful about what I eat. I haven’t galvanised myself into any exercise yet. I’ll probably walk to the cinema and back later today.

Speaking & Training

Lots coming up on the training front. It’s just over a month to Perl School 4 and I need to write that course. I also need to look at the marketing as I haven’t sold many tickets yet.

Then, soon after that is the two public Perl courses I’m running for FlossUK.

Dates for YAPC Europe have been announced and I’d be surprised if I don’t speak at that. It’s August 12-14th and this year it’s in Kiev.

Holiday

Did I mention I’ve been on holiday? We spent Christmas and New Year in South Africa. We had a great time. Photos and more detailed blog posts will hopefully turn up over the next few weeks.

Graceland

Still several weeks behind on the classic album front. But I wanted to leave this one until I cam back from my holiday in South Africa – it’s Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Some Historical Context

I’m not sure I can remember a time when I didn’t know this album. When it was released I was frequenting the kinds of pubs and wine bars where it was being played constantly, so it soon injected itself into my consciousness. This is very much the music that I listened to a lot at the end of the 80s. Not just this album but (as for many other people) this is the album that opened my ears to the possibilities of World Music. I have this album to thank for a lot of the music that I still listen to today.

I loved the album, but for some reason I didn’t buy it. Well, not until earlier this year when I wanted to listen to it again just before I went to see Paul Simon celebrating the album’s 25th anniversary with a gig in Hyde Park.

The rest of this post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. The Boy in the Bubble

There are so many strong songs on this album, but I think this is my favourite. I love the accordion on it. It’s just such a happy song that draws you into the album. The lyrics are infectious and positive too – “These are the days / Of miracles and wonders”. I can’t listen to this song without grinning.

2. Graceland

Anther great song. It’s probably the song that sounds most like Paul Simon’s previous work, but it has that great pedal steel guitar on it. Fabulous lyrics too.

3. I Know What I Know

When I listened to this album last summer, it was  probably the first time I had listened to it for about six or seven years. And I had completely forgotten about this song. Which is weird as I used to really love it. It’s a song that I used to play on the guitar. In some inexplicable way this seems to be a companion piece to Simon’s earlier “Late in the Evening”.

4. Gumboots

Every classic album must have a weakest track. And I think that this is Graceland’s. That’s not to say, at all, that it’s a weak track. It’s just that in amongst so many classics, this doesn’t quite cut it. On pretty much any other album, this would be a standout track. Never really understood that strange fade-out at the end though.

5. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes

Is there any point in describing this? There can’t be anyone who doesn’t know exactly what this sounds like. And what a great song it is. Hearing it I always want to go out and buy Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s complete back catalogue.

6. You Can Call Me Al

This is the big hit single from the album. It must have been the lead single. Another one that everyone can sing along too. Do you remember Chevy Chase in the video?

7. Under African Skies

When I think of this album, this is the song that usually pops into my head first. I mentioned that I’ve recently been on holiday in South Africa. And this is the song that I found myself humming most often.

8. Homeless

Another song that I absolutely love. The performance they did of this in Hyde Park last summer was just electrifying.

9. Crazy Love, Vol. II

This is another song that seems slightly ill at ease on this album. It’s a good song, but isn’t quite in the same league as most of the others.

10. That Was Your Mother

And this is another song that I had forgotten, but as soon as I heard it I remembered just how much I loved it.

11. All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints

Not the strongest track to end the album. I think that’s becoming quite a theme with these posts. Artists seem to push the better songs to the front of the album. I suppose that makes sense.

In Summary

An absolutely astonishing album. And it still sounds as good as it did in 1986. They don’t get much better than this.

Year Notes 2012

2012 was the first year that I tried writing weekly (although they often turned out to be fortnightly) “week notes” posts. This is a summary of what happened during the year.

Blogging

I’ve been a disastrous blogger this year. If you ignore the week notes and classic album posts I’ve written about thirty blog posts. I should be aiming at three or four times that number.

I’m still pleased with some of the posts I’ve written though. The three blog posts on Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s bizarre attack on marriage equality were pretty good. I liked my explanation of why you should never give your password to a third-party web site. And who can forget my battle with SeeTickets.

In July I celebrated the tenth anniversary of this blog and between March and September I resurrected Wasted Inches, one of my earliest experiments in blogging.

So, not a complete disaster. But nowhere near as successful as I’d hoped. I’ll definitely try harder this year.

Health

My health has been dominated by two stories in 2012. Firstly, right at the start of the year I slipped and broke my leg. I was in plaster for six weeks. And secondly there was my attempt to get fit and lose some weight. That was actually pretty successful. I took up jogging and carefully watched what I was eating. And over a period of a few months I lost over two stone. Over the last few months I stopped being quite so careful, with the result that I put about half a stone back on. But, hey, it’s now a new year so I’ll be trying again with renewed enthusiasm.

If I can repeat last year’s success and lose another two pounds then I’ll be really happy.

Training and Speaking

2012 feels like the year that my training business really started to take off. I’ve run a number of training courses for various companies. It makes a nice chance from the programming work that takes up most of my time. I’ve also run three successful Perl School sessions, with more planned for the future.

I haven’t been speaking as much as I have recent years. That’s partly because I skipped a couple of conferences that I usually attend. I’ll be aiming to go to more conferences this year.

Travel

I’ve seen more of the UK than I usually do in a year. That’s often been because of training courses. But I haven’t done that much foreign travel. I had a weekend in Berlin in August. And I’ve just got back from two weeks in South Africa.

I have nothing firm planned for this year yet, but I’m hoping to get to Kiev in August and we have vague plans to go to San Francisco at some point in the summer.

Gigs

I haven’t done a final count yet, but I suspect I saw fewer gigs in 2012 than I did in 2011. That’s partly because of the six weeks I spent with my leg in a cast, largely unable to get myself to the venues. I had to sell a few tickets to gigs that I couldn’t get to.

I’ll write another post summarising the best and worst gigs I saw in 2012.

Summary

A pretty good year all in all. And the week notes have been a really interesting and useful way to track what has been going on. I feel sure that I’ll continue the experiment during 2013.