Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Hellooo

The time had come to review my energy supplier.  Just over a year ago I left E.On – who had chosen to raise their prices when most suppliers were cutting theirs – and sign up with First Utility.

First Utility are a relatively new player in the field and the largest outside the "Big Six", so it clearly payed them to be competitive as they fought to attract customers. Consequently, I expected to stay with them for several years.  It wasn't to be.

I was soon put on my guard with persistent offers of long-term deals if I switched from my relatively inexpensive tariff to a more expensive "inflation proof" one for 18 months. These culminated in an unsolicited and very pushy phone call for a never to be repeated Black Friday offer. I said that I couldn't possibly make a decision without looking carefully at the tariff, and rang off.  Surprise, surprise; it was still significantly higher than my existing deal. By now, I was definitely smelling a rat! Then, as the contract neared its end, this email arrived —
    Hello Angela.
    Good news, we’re pleased to confirm you’ve updated your tariff to First Fixed November 2017 V9. This guarantees you’ll be protected from energy price rises until 30 November 2017. There’s no need to do anything, your tariff has been automatically updated from 04 December 2016.
I immediately emailed them, stating that I had NOT authorised this update and requesting to be returned to my original tariff. I would, I explained, review my energy supply arrangements before the end of January, but doubted that I would continue with First Utility. Back came this reply —
    Hello Angela.
    Thank you for your email. I have cancelled the request as this was not made by yourself. Your current tariff has now reverted to the original iSave Fixed January 2017. I hope this information helped. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get in contact with us.
So now the search was on. Deals change from week to week.  Early in December the comparisons on MoneySupermarket.com for my lowish fuel consumption had looked like this:


I'd no idea who Flow were. Co-operative Energy had, I knew, recently gained an accolade for having more complaints per 1000 customers than any other supplier.  Anyway, it was actually too early to consider a change as I would have incurred cancellation charges.

This week the comparison looked like this:


Scottish Power also have a somewhat tarnished reputation, having been fined £18million by Ofgen for "failing to treat customers fairly." Well they've had a few months to get their act together and (who would have believed it?) they were cheaper than my existing deal ... and a lot cheaper than the ones with which First Utility had tried so hard to tempt me.  Yes, it was a rat I'd smelled!

Rather than make the transfer on the Internet, I chose to phone Scottish Power and discuss my misgivings about their past misdemeanors — evidence of this girl's new-found confidence to confront the baddies.  I dialed their number...

"Hellooo," said a cheery Scottish voice. I liked that. I liked it a lot. And I know I'm far too easily impressed!  I also know that, for all their Scottish credentials, they're owned by the Spanish. But yes, the deal was as described on their website and on MoneySupermarket.com, and yes, they could have me swapped over on the very day that my First Utility tariff expired.

So that's that sorted... until 30th June 2018. By which time Scottish Power, buoyed up by their growing customer base, will probably be raising their prices to match.  Time will tell.

Life was so much simpler when I had a choice of just one supplier (SWEB) and paid them every quarter.


Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Island Holiday

One activity guaranteed to lift the gloom of the darkest winter day is to plan this year's holidays. Scanning a map of the Kingdom for interesting places that I've never visited, my eye settled on the Isle of Man.

In the days of Yahoo 360 (remember that?), I had a passing on-line friendship with a lady who lived on the Isle of Man and waxed lyrical about its beauty, whist bemoaning its lack of nightlife and the cost of getting to the mainland. Well, nightlife has never been important for me, but the isle does indeed appear to be a very beautiful place. It's high time, therefore, that I went and found out for myself.

One thing I'm not planning to do is sunbathe on a beach in Douglas! The Wikipedia article on the Isle of Man makes interesting reading — average high temperature in September a modest 16 degrees and 11 days of rain out of 30. However, I'm undeterred. With hills, mountains, Neolithic remains and quaint towns to explore, railways to ride on and miles of coastal footpath to trek, I'm convinced that a week will fly by.

My first task was to find a nice holiday cottage; preferably one with a reasonable degree of privacy. I must be an antisocial sod, but I don't relish the close company of other visitors in some holiday complex. Fortunately, I found a little beauty on the Welcome Cottages website – a traditional, detached Manx cottage on the west side of the island. At £660 for the week, it was no bargain (twice the cost of our 2014 cottage in Rye) but it's everything I'd hoped for and more beside. I quickly paid my £250 deposit.

Next came the task of getting there.  My friend from all those years ago was right; it ain't cheap. I toyed with flying from Gloucester and hiring a car on arrival, but decided in the end that it was far simpler to take Bluebird on the ferry from Liverpool. That added £278 to the cost of the holiday. One begins to understand why budget holidays in Majorca are a lot more popular than a week in Mann, though I know where I'd rather be!

To complete this holiday, I'm also going to book a couple of nights in Liverpool. It's a long time since I've been there and, at the very least, Paddy's Wigwam beckons. "Liverpool has world-class tourist attractions" boasts the city's website. I'm sure they're right.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The End of the World

Goodbye Slimming World, 
I'm leaving you today; 
goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Goodbye all you people, 
there's nothing you can say 
to make me change my mind. 
Goodbye.
(With apologies to Roger Waters: The Wall, 1979)

Just before Christmas I excitedly proclaimed to the world that no only had I achieved my Slimming World target weight, but surpassed it by a pound. I wrote: "With Christmas celebrations looming large, the timing could not have been better."  That wasn't entirely true.

On December 14th my Slimming World group closed – just one week before I was due to hit my target. For several months it had functioned with a superb temporary consultant, who made the 30 mile round trip from her home every Wednesday to be with us. But when she was offered a group in her home town, she understandably accepted and left us.  For a few weeks the group struggled on, covered by consultants from other groups, but it was more than a little obvious that they didn't really relish being there.  It came as no surprise, therefore, when this letter was handed out:
    Dear Member 
    It is with sincere regret that we write to let you know that due to circumstances outside our control, we are having to close your Slimming World group held at Whitecroft Memorial Hall. The last group will take place on Wednesday the 14th December 2016. At Slimming World our aim always is that members receive exceptional service from a caring Consultant, the motivation and support from each other and the fun and inspiration from a group where sharing is key to everyone’s success. When this support network breaks down we understand only too well how unsettling and distressing it can be. We would like to do our utmost to provide you with the same excellent service in another way, we would love for you to attend a group where full Image Therapy is offered, and will do our upmost (sic) to support you to do this. 
    If you would like to transfer to another group, we can provide you with details of your local groups. Please take this letter with you as authorisation that back fees will not be required.....
For the week that I'd so looked forward to, I transferred to a group that met on the same evening, 9 miles from my home. When I arrived they were in party mood and about to sit down to a Christmas meal. They invited me to join them, but I'd already arranged to have my evening meal with S-, so I politely declined. Instead, I weighed, collected my Certificate of Success and left with tears in my eyes.  Oh how I longed for my Slimming World friends from Whitecroft to have been there!

Perhaps illogically, I felt angry with Slimming World for robbing me of my evening of triumph. The week before, a few members of my group expressed their belief that the group had failed because the population of Whitecroft wasn't high enough to support more than one group every week and consultants could earn more elsewhere. Perhaps that's true, but I also felt angry with myself; angry about that week when I'd not lost any weight and two others when I'd only lost ½lb. If only!  If only!!

I've thought long and hard about returning to the group I'd attended on December 23rd.  The welcome from the consultant was as warm as it could possibly have been, and all the more so when I explained that I was a 'Whitecroft exile'. However, I've finally decided to turn my back on Slimming World altogether.
  • The 'new' group I attended meets at 6.30pm. If I stayed for the Image Therapy (group support) sessions, I wouldn't leave until 8pm, so probably wouldn't get home until about 8.30, which is rather late for an evening meal. 

  • Other Slimming World groups meet on other days, but Wednesday is far-and-away the best for me. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays are out of the question as I have other regular commitments. 

  • I could, of course, simply get weighed and skip the Image Therapy, but then I'd lose the support that would be the whole reason for attending.

  • I've just about managed to keep within my Target Weight Range over Christmas; no mean achievement, considering the amount of Christmas Cake, chocolate and plonk that was on offer. If I can stay reasonably focused through that lot then I think I have the self-discipline to maintain a healthy weight.

I realize that this flies in the face of all advice that Slimming World give to new Target Members, but my mind is made up.  Officially, the Whitecroft group has only closed temporarily. If (and it must be a big if) a new consultant can be found, and if the group resumes on the same day and at a convenient time, then I may rejoin. Only time will tell.

Post Script

Re-reading this post, I'm concerned that it may appear rather 'anti-Slimming World'. That was not my intention.  I will always be grateful to Slimming World for the encouragement they gave in getting control of my weight, and I'd recommend them to anyone. Thanks to Slimming World I'm not only slimmer but better looking (my friend assure me!) and healthier than I was 6 months ago. Debra, our consultant for most of my Slimming World journey, has been truly amazing.

Last week I saw my GP about a forthcoming minor operation and took the opportunity to mention that I'd lost a lot of weight. "I had a feeling that you were looking a lot slimmer, Angie, than when I last saw you," he commented. He then checked my blood pressure, which turned out to be an extremely healthy 120/70.  "Absolutely spot-on" was his comment, and he suggested that I cease taking my blood pressure tablet (Lisinopril) and my statin (Simvastatin), then see how my blood pressure reacts. Wow!


Saturday, 31 December 2016

Programming Again

A few posts ago I mentioned that I'd resurrected my old website writing skills (Going Solo, 29th November).  The resultant site is, I admit, far from being the greatest on the Worldwide Web but it does its job and I had a lot of fun putting it together.

Like many in my generation, my first foray into computer programming was writing programs in BASIC. To start with, they were simple ones like this conversion table from degrees C to F:

10 for c=0 to 100 step 10
20 print c, (c*1.8)+32
30 next c

I was most fortunate to be working in a development unit where "playing with computers" was accepted as an important part of the job. We had some of the early micro-computers to be imported from the USA, such as these products from Southwest Technical, and a couple of us became so enthusiastic that we often ordered sandwiches from the Head Office canteen and worked on into the evening for no extra pay.  O the joys of not having too many family responsibilities!

My programming skills developed quite rapidly so that, before long, I was able to control items of lab equipment and automatically log the results. I branched out a bit into other programming languages but mainly stuck with derivatives of that original BASIC language, since programs could be developed quite quickly. In our industry, processing speed was never an issue and if I ran out of memory I could always slot in an extra 8k board. Yes, a whole 8k... wow!

Anyway, revenons à nos moutons, that web programming has reminded me that I do enjoy writing programs. So, pining for the old days of my youth, I've decided to learn a modern incarnation of the old BASIC language — Visual Basic.

First step was to buy a good 'teach yourself' book and I settled on this one.  Computer wiz-kids will be quick to point out that Visual Basic 2012 isn't wholly compatible with Windows 10 and that I should have gone for the 2015 version, but that was a lot more expensive and, for the programs I have in mind, I think I can cope with any incompatibility problems. By the way, those "24 hours" are not meant to imply that, if I open the book on Monday morning then by Tuesday morning I'll know it all!  They are 24 one hour lessons, so several weeks of work lie ahead of me.

The next step was to download Visual Basic 2012, free of charge, from Microsoft. To my surprise, what I ended up with was a suite of programs (Visual Studio) that included C++ (with which I have dabbled in the past) and C# that I've not heard of before.

Yesterday evening I opened the book and tackled Lesson One. Here's some of the code that I had written before the clock chimed midnight and I crawled off to bed:

Private Sub btnSelectPicture_Click(sender As Object, e As EventArgs) Handles btnSelectPicture.Click
        ' Show the open file dialog box.
        If ofdSelectPicture.ShowDialog = DialogResult.OK Then
            ' Load the picture into the picture box
            picShowPicture.Image = Image.FromFile(ofdSelectPicture.Filename)
            ' Show the name of the file in the form's caption.
            Me.Text = "Picture Viewer(" & ofdselectpicture.FileName & ")"

        End If
    End Sub

Crumbs, there really isn't much of that old BASIC left, though a few expressions have a familiar ring to them, such as  If... Then... End If. Much of the rest remains gobbledegook to me, but I expect to grow a little wiser with each passing chapter. For this old bird, the thrill of actually making a computer do something is like being young(ish) all over again!



Friday, 23 December 2016

Slimming World success

I've done it! 24 weeks after joining Slimming World, I have shed 2 stone, 9½ pounds and not only achieved my target weight but gone a pound beyond it.

When I started, my Body Mass Index was 30.3, which meant that I was clinically obese. Over the years I'd tried calorie counting or simply giving up fatty foods, and my weight had dropped a bit, then risen again as enthusiasm waned, but never went far from the obese threshold of 30. Now it's a very healthy 24.5 and I'm rather proud of the fact that I never gained weight once on my Slimming World journey.

With Christmas celebrations looming large, the timing could not have been better.  Whilst I have no intention of lapsing into my old ways, I will be able to relax a bit, and enjoy a few slices of Christmas Cake and Cornish clotted cream on my Christmas Pudding.  Hopefully, my weight won't rise more than 3lb above Target Weight, ensuring that I keep my free membership of Slimming World. If I do over-indulge, though, I shall simply pay up and doubtless knock the excess pounds off quite quickly.  After all, I know what to do.

All of which emphasises the importance to me of the 'group therapy' that has become an essential part of my weight loss programme. Yes, I know that it's perfectly possible to lose weight without joining a group of rotund individuals every week, commiserating with those who have gained weight and congratulating those who have lost. But believe me, few things gladden a slimmer's heart more than applause from ones friends after a good week.

Then there are the certificates, marking important stages on the journey and proudly displayed on a notice board in my hobby room. Apart from that final Certificate of Success, this has to be the one for which I'm most proud, not least because it was unexpected...


I'm thrilled that two friends have joined Slimming World after seeing how much good it was doing me, and another is thinking about it. Others who were already members have also contacted me and we've been able to encourage one another.

To them, and to anyone else embarking on this Slimming World journey, I offer just two bits of advice:

1.Attend the group sessions. Slimming World call this 'Image Therapy' and that's exactly what it is. When, week by week, friends applaud your efforts, you really do grow to believe that the image staring back at you in the mirror is growing more and more lovely.

2. Don't stop counting Syns. All food that isn't 'free' has a syn value and most of us are encouraged to aim for 5-15 syns a day. For the first four weeks, consultants ask us to log all our food and record those syns. After the four weeks, don't stop! Slimming World will keep giving you food logs if you want them. I chose to make my own record sheets, on which I recorded my syns, together with the Healthy Extra dairy and fibre foods which are an essential part of the Slimming World plan.

Incidentally, one thing that Slimming World consultants don't recommend is that you weigh yourself too often. That's one bit of advice that I chose to ignore, jumping on the scales at least 5 times a week, though I wouldn't necessarily advise others to do the same.  Recording data was an important part of my old job in the China Clay industry and statistics still fascinate me. Consequently I can tell you that my average weekly weight loss was 1.56lb with a standard deviation of 1.2. How sad is that?

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Impulse Buying on a rainy day

Yesterday dawned damp and misty, then gradually deteriorated.  Plans to do a pleasant 6 mile walk around English Bicknor and the Wye Valley were reluctantly shelved and we sat in our lounge, sipping tea and wondering what to do.

"Let's take the train to Cardiff," I suggested, "and buy new salt and pepper mills."  No, they were not to be the 'impulse buy', though I readily admit that a 90 minute round trip by train just to buy some modest tableware is pretty daft. But mum sends us £30 every year and it's nice to have something to show for it before Christmas Day. So Cardiff it was.

First stop, the Brewery Quarter ('How unlike us,' I hear you say) where there are several nice restaurants. We settled on Bella Italia, as I love Italian food and they had several 'Slimming World-friendly' dishes, including this beef ravioli. A bottle of Trebbiano, shared between us, wasn't so great for the diet, but would just about be OK if I behaved for the rest of the day (possible, but unlikely). Anyway, like the wine, I was feeling fresh and fruity.😃

Despite some well-deserved leg-pulling over Cardiff's Chinese Christmas Tree – the council thought they'd ordered a 40 metre one, but it was only 40 feet! – the city centre looked commendably festive.


I love a tempting bargain! (on the right;click to enlarge) 



I especially like these rows of little wooden sheds – so much nicer than the usual market stalls and perfect for rainy winter days. I spent ages exploring them...


... and at this one I succumbed – my impulse buy! Are not those Nepalese handbags just amazing? I bought two @ £16 each; one for me and one as a present for someone special. I love then because, with that patchwork of colours, they will match almost anything that I choose to wear. They're quite roomy too, but not so big that I'll lose things in their murky depths.


Only one thing left to get.  Now what was it?... Ah yes, the salt and pepper mills. I drew a blank at House of Fraser (reassuringly expensive, but rather ordinary-looking) and searched in vain for a kitchenware shop, but finally discovered this little beauty in John Lewis for £27 – a Cole & Mason combined salt and pepper mill. It's electric, rather stylish and looks better made than the clanky old Salter ones its replacing.

So, thanks to the mist and rain, Monday turned out to be quite an expensive day; well, expensive by my usually modest standards.  Two return rail fares £24, lunch at Bella Italia £40, two handbags £32, salt & pepper mill £27, coffees in Starbucks £5; total £128.

That will do until after Christmas, when – rain or shine – newly super-slim Angie plans to make the most of the New Year sales.  If you could see the way in which many of my old skirts and tops are literally falling off me, you'd agree that something must be done.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Forgiving Slade


Does your granny always tell ya' that the old songs are the best?

Indeed she does — O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Mary's Boy Child, O Holy Night and my favourite of them all, The Shepherds' Farewell. Yes, they're the best.

Truth is, I love Christmas.  I love Christmas trees, Christmas turkey, Christmas presents, Christmas cards from family and treasured friends, Christmas crackers and silly hats, Christmas carols from Kings College and Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. Into the damp, cold, short days around the Winter Solstice, Christmas beams light and happiness and good fun. Consequently, my Christmas Tree goes up soon after Advent Sunday. By Twelfth Night it will be quite bedraggled, but I love it anyway; as does my well-behaved moggy Tommy - the first cat I've had who can be trusted with all those decorative balls.

Yes, if Christmas didn't exist, it would surely have to be invented.

However, I definitely don't love the over-commercialisation of Christmas and the unremitting pressure to spend more than I have on things neither I nor my loved ones really want. But that, I tell myself, is the price for living in a capitalist society, and I wouldn't willingly swap it for anyone else's system. As far as profit-hungry retailers are concerned, any excuse will do. Mothers' Day, Easter and Halloween (yuk!) get similar treatment, but Christmas is the Grand Daddy of them all.

For me, and for many like me, Christmas also has a strong religious importance, perfectly summed up in these lines from Charles Wesley's famous carol:
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
hail the incarnate Deity;
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

I am not, however, naive enough to believe that Christmas should solely be a Christian festival. It may indeed be The Reason for the Season, but folk were marking the Winter Solstice long before Christianity reached these shores. Truth be told, Easter is more significant for Christians. The birth of Jesus isn't even mentioned in two of the four Gospels, whilst the prolific St Paul half-mentioned it just once – But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman... (Galatians 4.4). The rest, truth be told, is hype.

Then she's up and rock 'n' rollin' with the rest.

Photo: Alastair Lightly
I've oft been heard to remark that Slade have a lot to answer for! For weeks now it's been almost impossible to shop in a supermarket or department store without hearing them singing:

Are you hanging up your 
stocking on the wall?
Are you hoping that the snow 
will start to fall?...

Tesco have even tried to make a joke of it in one of their more nauseating Christmas commercials. If a Christmas song has ever been done to death, it's surely that one...  or is it?

Well here's our ukulele group – the amazing Ukes 'uv Azzard – busking in Coleford last Saturday. I'm third from the left. Despite it being a bitterly cold morning, we're thoroughly enjoying ourselves and enthusiastically singing, among other Christmas numbers, yes... you guessed it, Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody. And I have to admit that having sung it, rather than just listened to it, it's a great song. The good folk of Coleford clearly agreed, as that open ukulele case was soon filling up with donations for our local hospice, which is surely what the Christmas Spirit is really all about.