Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Wrong Kind of Disruption: Sorry seems to be the hardest word


“The Wrong Kind of Disruption: Sorry seems to be the hardest word” 
or 
How Train Operating Companies apologise using Twitter 

Eliot Andersen 

Abstract 

This paper deals with the usage of apologies by a British Train Operating Company, London Midland, through the medium of the social networking and mini-blogging website, Twitter. It looks at how apologies are used during periods of delay with both short and long-term effects, and how they are constructed in both scenarios. The paper shows the breakdown of how apologies are formulated over the course of a series of “tweets” (messages sent through Twitter) and how the company is able to spin an incident, from one which they are partly to blame for, to one where they are actively helping the customer and in the process, avoid any loss to revenue or reputation. 

Introduction 

Britain’s privatised railway system is used by over 3.6 million passengers each day, for a range of purposes, from daily commuting to one-off long-distance travel for both work and pleasure. The British media seem to take great pleasure in much maligning the railway system whenever a high-profile problem causes delays or cancellations to train services, which obviously has a negative effect on the reputation of the private companies which run the multitude of franchises covering Britain. Bad press can cause a drop in passenger figures and thus the all-important ticket sales revenue, in the competitive world of railways, so the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) do their utmost to promote good publicity for themselves, and the railway system as a whole. It is essential, in today’s high-tech world of the internet and online social networking media, that railway companies keep their passengers up to date and informed should anything go awry. 

This paper aims to look at the phenomena of corporate bodies using a social networking media in order to connect with their customers; in this case, it will look at the actions of a Train Operating Company, London Midland, who have an “award-winning official account” on the micro-blogging website “Twitter”, according to their own Twitter account, @LondonMidland (2012). Specifically, this paper aims to address how the company, or rather, its public relations employees, acting on its behalf, use Twitter in order to apologise to their customers during a period of disruption in which their trains are involved. 

London Midland operate a franchise which primarily serves the West Midlands, with two sub-brands, “City”, which incorporates cross-city services within the Birmingham conurbation and “Express”, which is the term for the services between the West Midlands and the southern terminus of the West Coast Main Line, London Euston. This route is shared with another franchise, that of Virgin Trains, which operate express services between Birmingham and London, providing one source of competition for London Midland, though the two generally serve different markets. Whereas Virgin targets the long-distance traveller, London Midland’s primary custom is the stream of thousands of daily commuters into London from both the West Midlands and the Home Counties. This commuter belt is well served both by frequent trains into London but also a good road system of trunk routes and motorways. 

A loss of faith by the commuters in the railway company will lead to more people driving, reflecting badly upon the railways, who wish to both provide a first-rate public service, while heralding their “green” credentials as an alternative way to travel. Poor management of a franchise by the holder could see the franchise revoked by the Government, which would tarnish the reputation of the parent company, as with National Express in 2009. 

But, if this paper is to address the actions of a corporate user of such a social networking website, then the following question must be posed – what exactly is Twitter? 

Twitter (2012) describes itself as “a real-time information network that connects you to the latest information about what you find interesting”. It is used by millions of both individuals and companies in order to connect with each other, sending out messages online (which are known as “Tweets”), which are restricted to 140 characters. This character restriction will later come to form a key part of this investigation. 

Users of Twitter have the ability to set their profile to be either private or visible to the public. The normal convention is for individuals to use privacy settings, in which case they would be restricting their profiles so that only people with their own Twitter accounts, who they know and have approved, are able see their Tweets and interact with them on the website. On the other hand, companies will, in general, have a public account, meaning that an internet user without a Twitter account of any kind can see what they are “Tweeting” about. This is especially useful for a company such as London Midland – while their Twitter account has over 10,000 “followers” (as of December 2011), who receive regular automatic updates from London Midland, the company itself provides train services to a number greatly exceeding that, so it is essential that the information that their public relations department is providing is within the public domain for all of their customers to be able to access easily. London Midland’s own website (2012) states that “50 million passenger journeys a year” are undertaken on trains which they operate. 

The dataset used within this paper comes from the public Twitter account of London Midland on Twitter (@LondonMidland). There are no ethical issues raised by the use of this data, as, due to the public nature of the Twitter account in question, it is considered to be within the public domain and accessible under free use policies. 

Literature Review 

We must now turn our attention to the following question – What are apologies? 

Brown and Levinson (1987) pose that to accept an apology would be a Face-Threatening Act (FTA) to the receiver of the apology’s negative face. Apologies also damage the speaker’s positive face. They describe these two notions of face as – 

“negative face: the want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his actions be unimpeded by others. 
positive face: the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others.” (1987: 311) 

In that case, what is the linguistic definition of “face”? The Goffmanian idea of “face” is that 

“The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes-albeit an image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his profession […] by making a good showing for himself.” (1967: 5)

Goffman mentions the idea of responsibility being central to apologies. He says that apologies are “a gesture through which an individual splits himself into two parts, the part that is guilty of an offense and the part that dissociates itself from the delict and affirms a belief in the offended rule.” (1971: 113) 

Holmes goes on to define apologies as “a speech act addressed to B’s face-needs and intended to remedy an offence for which A takes responsibility, and thus to restore equilibrium between A and B (where A is the apologizer, and B is the person offended).” (1990: 159 emphasis added) This idea of “equilibrium” will form a key part later in this investigation. 

Clark adds that “Language is used for doing things.” (1996: 3) Apologies, as speech acts, are very much at the forefront of maintaining the equilibrium between A and B, mentioned by Holmes. An apology is usually an explicit way in which we can claim responsibility for our threats to face, in order to reclaim our image in the mind of the hearer. 

But do they necessarily have to be explicit? 

Word such as “sorry” or “apologise” are explicit speech acts which are used to illustrate an apology by the speaker. They fall under the category of “Illocutionary Force Indicating Devices” (IFIDs). But is it necessary for these speech acts to be present in speech at all times, for the idea of an apology to be conveyed? 

Through the medium of a social networking website, such as Twitter, with its 140 character limit, can messages be sent without the inclusion of an explicit apologetic speech act, and yet the meaning of an apology is still present within the speaker’s sentiment?

The Data Set – usual explicit apologies 

These tweets are examples were collected from separate, isolated “incidents” in the week running up to the main extended data set. 

Apologies - 1917 Bham-Rugeley will be c.15m late this eve and will be extremely busy as now 1 carriage shorter than usual re: train fault. 
Aston update: signal has now been repaired, so trains running normally again. Sorry for any hold ups this morning. 
Bham New St update: points fault now repaired so trains can use all platforms again. Sorry if you've been held up. 

These are all unconnected apologies, as a precursor to the main period of disruption which will be discussed. This is to illustrate the usual apologetic style of tweet published by London Midland – an explicit apology speech act and a form of account to inform the reader of the reasoning behind the apology. These are used for one-off incidents, where the length of time that the disruption will be in effect for is short. 

The main part to the data set which will be assessed was tweeted by @LondonMidland on November 5, 2011. It is a series of tweets concerning delays to trains in the Wembley area, just outside London Euston station. The period of disruption lasted for several hours over the course of the afternoon, with all trains at a standstill and thousands of passengers travelling to or from London stranded onboard the trains until the damage done to the overhead power lines, which power the trains, could be repaired and the trains were allowed to move safely once again. 

For the purpose of this paper, the series of tweets has been split into two “waves”. The first wave concerns the start of the disruption, where the London Midland public relations employees, who are doing the tweeting, are unsure as to how long it will be before trains are on the move again, though as the events unfold, they obviously realise that the disruption will remain for quite some time. The first wave will be referred to, for the purposes of this paper, as “accounts”. 

The Data Set part 1 – the start to the disruption, “accounts” 

Due to damage to overhead power lines at Wembley, fast lines are currently blocked between Euston and Harrow. 
Wembley update: 2 lines still open through Wembley, so trains will be able to run but with delays due to congestion. 
Wembley update 3: special timetable now in place which means Eus-Tring services won't run, but extra stops on Eus-MK svcs to compensate. 
Wembley update 5: bad news I'm afraid. Problems reported on both northbound lines. All services now suspended from Eus until fruther notice. 
Wembley update 10: Trains from the north starting to terminate at Watford Junction. Please take London Overground from there. 

These are all accounts, describing what has gone wrong. The only feature which could be described as an explicit apology is “I’m afraid”, though this is not as clear-cut or definite as “sorry” or “apologise”, and it could be argued that it would depend on the reader’s point of view as to whether this was a form of apology or not. 

What is interesting is the use of the first person pronoun “I”. London Midland has a small team of its public relations employees whose responsibility it is to keep the company’s Twitter page updated throughout the day. They introduce themselves by name upon “signing” on, and have obviously been instructed to refer to themselves as individuals, rather than the company as a whole, making the account seem less impersonal to the customers and readers, and more like they were speaking face to face or over the phone with one of London Midland’s customer service representatives. 

By using the company Twitter account, the employees are informing the “followers” or (potential) customers of the company’s activities, in doing so, taking on the voice of the company, though in a more personified and approachable way, though the use of “I”, to suggest that it is indeed a real person, but speaking on behalf of their employer. In today’s society where much mass-communication is now automated, consumers still prefer the idea of contacting or dealing with another human being, especially in the case of problem solving. This public “face” of the company (not too dissimilar to that defined by Goffman) helps to retain customers, by presenting the company as customer-centric and –focused. 

The Data Set part 2 – But-Justifications – so, you say you want a resolution 

Wembley update 12: tickets also now being accepted from Paddington to Reading / Reading to Birmingham. 
Wembley update 18: Just a reminder, tickets being accepted on alternative routes from London. Happy to help if you're unsure of best option. 
If you haven't been able to travel today due to the problems on the Euston line, you're welcome to use your ticket tomorrow. 
Wembley update 33: engineers expected on site at 2230hrs and will work thru night to repair damage in time for normal service tomorrow. 
Sorry if you've been delayed on the Euston line today and thank you for your patience. Compensation available: http://bit.ly/adKIhw 

After the lengthy series of accounts, as more information about the incident becomes apparent, London Midland realise that they need to restore the equilibrium after the imbalance caused by the disruption. 

The second wave of tweets takes on the role of “resolutions”. They are what are termed as “but-justifications” by Davies et al (2007). But-Justifications are defined as a situation during apology where the speaker notes that “I may have done something for which I need to apologize, but I’m doing other things that make me a good […] person.” (2007: 57) They differ in their nature from the accounts, which appear in the earlier tweets – “Accounts are used to demonstrate why the apologizer was unable to avoid the offence: it is a way of saying that full blame should not be attributed, and thus it mitigates the damage.” Instead, Davies et al speak of but-justifications in that they “work through enhancing the apologizee’s opinion of some aspect of the apologizer’s identity.” (2007: 58) In short, they are concerned with resolving any threats to the face of the hearer, by in turn augmenting the speaker’s positive face. The but-justifications here have been presupposed and positioned so that the information which they contain is presented as the company being helpful and a “good company”, in the same sort of vein as the “good person” which Davies et al refer to, rather than it being a series of apologies, which could do more harm than good to the company, by showing them as weak and unable to actually remedy the face-threatening situation. This spin, very much reminiscent of that used in the political arena, is key to modern-day companies’ marketing and public relations strategies. 

At first glance, it seems quite extraordinary that the first (and only) explicit apology within the lengthy series, “sorry”, comes in the final tweet of the sequence! Though, taking the rest of the tweets into context, it is very obvious that this is quite evidently not the first time where the company is actually trying to appear apologetic towards its customers, or showing that it cares about the level of service which it should be able to provide. 

Also of interest in the series of but-justifications is the use of the explicit speech act “thank you”, showing gratitude. It seems that the concepts of apology and gratitude could well be interlinked and this could provide further scope for investigation. Much like the sincerity involved with the use of apologies, it is only possible for a company to thank its customers if they genuinely believe that the company is indeed grateful for their custom and if the customers will actually accept the thanks which have been given. 

Within this second wave of tweets, the there are glimpses of the compensation culture of today, which is quite evident, especially in the privatised rail industry. Train delays cost companies millions, in fines, refunds and potential future lost revenue. It is in the company’s best financial interests to give as many incentives to keep their faith in using the company’s services, in order to thereby retain its customer base. The London Midland website has a section devoted to the various forms of “delay repay” compensation available to inconvenienced passengers after trains have been delayed or cancelled. This could be considered to be “hidden in plain sight”, as it is very easily accessible on the website, suggesting that the company is keen not to see any of its customers needlessly out of pocket. This is akin to the tweet which deals with any passengers interested in pursuing compensation claims – by going out of their way to demonstrate how they are happy to reimburse inconvenienced customers, the image of the company, in the eye of its current or prospective customers, is brought back into the state of equilibrium, thanks to this deployment of “positive face” tactics, in order to counteract the “negative face” of apologising. 

On review of both “waves” of tweets from November 5, it seems that the company was very much apologising implicitly throughout the period of disruption. But is it the case that explicit apologies were not included due to the 140 character limitations of tweets? However, one could argue that multiple tweets sent consecutively could be used, with a message (and an explicit apology) being split across two tweets (and therefore over 280 characters), but this does not occur through any of London Midland’s tweets. It could be due to the perceived nature of the severity of the problem. If, for instance, the problem was a one-off incident, such as a single train being cancelled, then a one-off tweet explaining and apologising would suffice. Conversely, a problem which can be for-seen as long running can generate a series of tweets, in which the implicit apology speech act is constructed through the various tweets but only completed by the final explicit speech act, to save on the repetition of each tweet being signed off with the words “sorry” or “apologise”. 

On the other hand, it could be that but-justifications may be used instead of an explicit apology speech act. Perhaps further investigation could lead to a more definite answer; if London Midland and other corporate bodies had their tweets monitored over a period of time, to see whether, during a lengthy period of “face-threatening-ness”, their tweets were sent as individual messages sans any form of explicit apology speech act, or if messages were constructed of several consecutive tweets, allowing a longer, less constricted message, featuring “sorry” or “apologise”. 

It is, however, very obvious that the company does care for its customers (i.e. their negative face), and moves on from accounts of the disruption, keeping the customers informed of the disruption to their travel plans, to the but-justifications of how they are helping the customers, by directing them to alternative transport or compensation claims. But they also care a great deal for their own positive face, and how they appear to their customers as a resourceful organisation. This sort of spin is evidently employed throughout the public relations departments of corporate life today.

Conclusion 

As part of the conclusion to the paper, the following cliché, or a variation of it, incredibly familiar to anyone who has worked in a customer service position at any point in their life, must be considered - “the customer is king” or “the customer is always right” (Selfridge, 190x). The public relations employees of London Midland are well aware that it is the travelling and thus spending habits of their employer’s customers that is keeping them in a job, so it is of vital importance to them that they keep the customers informed at all times. A customer that feels that the company takes their wants and feelings into account is more likely to both make more use of the company’s services and will also be more likely to recommend the company to other potential customers. 

Another slogan or mantra used by corporate management which seems very much applicable to the idea of public apologies involving accounts and but-justifications is the idea that – 

“an excuse is an admission of failure.” (Anon, n.d.,) 

A series of accounts (or in this case “excuses”) naturally seem to progress to but-justifications, as they show that the company cares about any damage it has done to the negative face of its customers. Through the use of these but-justifications, the company is able to show its passengers that it is attempting to minimise disruption for their daily lives. It appears that in this context, they can be constructed and used instead of an explicit apology speech act, in order to successfully imply an apology. Surely, a company which was not apologetic for an incident in which it was involved would not bother at all to keep its valued customers regularly informed – they know the importance of keeping their customers on side. 

In today’s money-obsessed compensation culture, blame shifting and damage limitation is at the forefront of public relations department’s remit. Within their purview, London Midland managed to distance themselves from the period of disruption which the tweets concern, in this case by not actually mentioning what they are doing to resolve the problem, but instead mentioning, in a passive form, that something is being done. Network Rail is the owner of the railway infrastructure, such as the overhead power lines which were brought down, and so the problem was their responsibility, and until they had affected such a repair, then London Midland would be powerless (quite literally!) to do anything about it. The “engineers” referenced to in the but-justifications are not employed by London Midland, but Network Rail, however, conveniently, at this point, London Midland do not mention this, which leads the reader to make up their own mind as to who is resolving the problem. It is also interesting to note that it was damage caused to one of their own trains that was partly the cause of the lines being closed for hours in the first place! 

Through this use of Twitter, we can see that London Midland have very much borne in mind the idea that there is no such thing as “bad publicity”, or, at least, not if one is able to successfully spin one’s way out of such negative sentiments. Cleverly constructed apologies are employed with an aim to keep the customer on-side by demonstrating, through but-justifications, the various resolutions that the company is offering or doing to put right the imbalance in the face equilibrium. With the shift in modality through indirectly pointing the finger of blame away from themselves and working to otherwise distract the attention of an annoyed customer base with but-justifications, a bad situation can be turned into a publicity opportunity for the company and ensuring that the company coffers are unaffected by an event for which they may or may not have been responsible. To apologise without doing any sort of face work would be to share a portion of the blame and have provided an account, or an “excuse”, reflecting badly upon the company, who would be made to look relatively powerless. It appears that an explicit apology is used once the company considers the equilibrium to have been restored to its balanced state. 

To conclude, it is interesting to note that the following notice appeared as a preface to every working timetable and appendix of the County Donegal Railways. It applies equally today to the employees of Britain’s railway companies – 

It is well for each member of this organisation to bear in mind that goodwill based upon years of conscientious effort may be entirely destroyed by a moment's carelessness or indifference towards a customer. 
(County Donegal Railways, 1906 cited in Butterell, 1994) 

References

Brown, P., Levinson, S.C., (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. In: Jaworski, A., Coupland, N., eds. 2006. The Discourse Reader, Second Edition. Abingdon: Routledge. 
Butterell, R., (1994). My Week: A steam dream with no strikes: The controller lets Robin Butterell go solo - after he has mastered the ticket machine, The Independent, [online] Available at:< http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/my-week-a-steam-dream-with-no-strikes-the-controller-lets-robin-butterell-go-solo--after-he-has-mastered-the-ticket-machine-1379698.html> [Accessed 15 January 2012] 
Clark, H.H., (1996). Using language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
Davies, B.L., Merrison, A.J., Goddard, A., (2007). Institutional Apologies in UK higher education: Getting back into the black before going into the red. Journal of Politeness Research 3, 39-63. 
Goffman, E., (1967) Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Doubleday Anchor. 
Goffman, E., (1971) Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order. New York: Basic Books. 
Holmes, J., (1990). Apologies in New Zealand English. Language in Society 19, 155-199. 
London Midland, 2012. London Midland. [online] Available at: <http://www.londonmidland.com> [Accessed 15 January 2012]. 
Selfridge, H.G. (190x) Trading slogan used for Selfridge’s
Twitter, 2012. Twitter. [online] Available at: <https://twitter.com/about> [Accessed 15 January 2012]. 
@LondonMidland, 2012. Twitter - @LondonMidland. [online] Available at: <https://twitter.com/LondonMidland> [Accessed 15 January 2012]. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

HS3 - Heavy Spin 3?

Today's speech in Manchester by George Osborne, outlining a proposed HS3 Manchester to Leeds railway, promises to continue the legacy of regeneration brought about by HS1 (formerly the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) and HS2. But is it all that it seems?

Osborne was accompanied by civil engineer Sir David Higgins, chair of HS2 Ltd and formerly of Network Rail. Higgins' job seemed to be to stand behind Osborne and point out that when George said "new railway line", what he actually meant was "no new line per se, but upgrades to the existing route". 

This, in a way, makes sense - Manchester and Leeds are already linked by two existing inter-regional railways: the Calder Valley route from Manchester Victoria via Rochdale, Summit Tunnel Todmorden and a reversal at Bradford Interchange, and the faster Standedge route, through Stalybridge, Huddersfield and Dewsbury. The latter is primary used by First TransPennine Express - a hermaphroditic franchise which attempts to cater for both long-distance travellers and commuters and generally fails both, miserably, no thanks to decisions taken over the past decade by the Department for Transport with regard to rolling stock procurement. 

Where would a new TransPennine railway line go? The obvious answer is between the two - following the Saddleworth Moor route of the congested M62. There is no point in us considering the frequently called-for reopening of the Woodhead route via Dinting to Sheffield, as this would not achieve Osborne's goal of linking with Leeds. As we've seen with the plans for both phases of HS2, any new railway line is likely to be met with much resistance by the usual unholy alliance of NIMBYs, Nigel Farage-worshippers, MailOnline commenters, and parish council bores. The cost would also likely be high - with little benefit, compared to HS2, which is necessary in part to replace the West Coast Main Line, rapidly approaching its 200th birthday and creaking at the seams, despite a £8.8bn upgrade project (which was four times over-budget and still fell way short of its original intentions). 

So, the answer is fairly obvious - improve what we've got. I'm not normally an advocate for such a conservative (small C) approach, however the Standedge route actually gives us this opportunity. The route possesses two major feats of engineering - the two-track Saddleworth Viaduct, which crosses the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, and the two-track 3 mile, 60 yard long Standedge Tunnel. However, the tunnel is parallel to two more disused single-track railway tunnels, both of which are maintained by Network Rail, and one of which is used as an evacuation route from the main double-track tunnel. 

So one of the main engineering obstacles on the route has already been conquered, more than 150 years ago. Admittedly, major work undoubtedly needs doing to the old tunnels, in order to bring them up to a standard whereby they could be used by modern, fast trains, but they are remarkably straight, end to end, and could play an essential role by providing a four-tracked TransPennine route for nearly four miles, if further track relaying was carried out on the Huddersfield side of the tunnel. 

And where to then? The cheapest option would be to continue eastwards through Huddersfield, upgrading the route to allow for a higher line speed en route. After Huddersfield, the line joins the Calder Valley route at Mirfield (more four-tracking could take place here), before heading eastwards towards Wakefield. However, trains currently make for Leeds via Dewsbury. I'd propose running them through Wakefield Kirkgate and then building a spur diverging between there and Normanton, whereby the trains would join HS2 for the remainder of their journey to Leeds. This would give the added advantage of the trains being able to head for York and thence Tyneside or Teesside, which would give us a true Northern Hub of the great cities of the North, and with another spur in the Garforth area, a link could be made from HS2 to the Leeds-Selby-Hull line, allowing for a connection to Humberside. 

Looking westwards, the lack of a connection to Liverpool (which will only be served by HS2's "classic compatible" trains) is noticeable. Here, work is needed in Manchester, possibly in the form of a four-platform station underground at Piccadilly - with two platforms for Liverpool and two to the Airport via HS2 (and thus all points south). This station would be part of a Manchester tunnel which would start on the eastern side of the city in the Stalybridge area, thus allowing for higher speed running and a reduction in overground congestion on the existing lines. Liverpool would then be served by a high speed line which would take a similar path to the existing Chat Moss route via Newton-le-Willows, with provision for a curve from HS2, allowing High Speed trains from London access into Merseyside. 

So - much to think about! It seems that Lord Adonis, Labour's last Transport Secretary, will be outlining his own thoughts on rail and economic regeneration in the north in a few days' time - no doubt that will bring plenty of its own ideas to think about. 

It's time to stop being vague and to start setting out plans which will clearly help as many regions as possible, while providing the rail network with new and improved infrastructure to increase capacity and speed up trains. 

Osborne says that we need to think big. I say that we need to cut through the spin and think even bigger. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

On voting

If you can't be bothered to engage with politics...

...then politics certainly won't be bothered to engage with you.

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Inaction changes nothing.

People fought and died for your right to vote.

It's your responsibility to carry out your civic duty.

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This year's Budget was a Budget for the rich and the old. Why? Because they're the people who go out to vote without fail. It was a short-termist Budget to keep the core Tory vote sweet. There was nothing in it for younger people or the low-paid. That will remain the status quo until younger people become the demographic where an election is won or lost.

Why vote? Because it affects your future. It is in your best interests to engage with politics. You will never affect the tent if you're urinating onto its waterproof exterior. You will if you're peeing all over someone's sleeping bag. If you want to change the game, you've got to play it - otherwise you just end up being played.

By all means - spoil your ballot paper. I don't care what with, "none of the above", expletives, large phallic shapes, whatever. Your conscious abstention will be counted. Your reluctance to get off your backside will not.

So, please, go and vote - there's still two hours before polls close. You might even enjoy it.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Vote Gove, have sex
















Good news, friends! Everybody's favourite Secretary of State for Education, The Rt Hon Michael "never cross a picket line" Gove MP, has come out with yet another non sequitur.

Question at Cabinet meeting: "Why do people come to London?"
Michael Gove: "For loads of hot sex!"

Click here to read the full story (apologies, it's from the Daily Mail)

Mr Gove says that young businessmen and women from across the globe flock to London because of the wealth of opportunities for both success and sex. Now, as someone who migrated a great distance to London only five months ago, I feel that I need to ask which parts of London Mr Gove is frequenting, as "loads of hot sex" seems to be few and far between in my neighbourhood. I'm heartened to know that it's not just me. I mean, I can't say I'm surprised that Mr Gove knows all about the sexual exploits on offer in old London Town - just look at him, the rampant sex god that he is.

With the various rumours circulating about Mr Gove's Conservative Party leadership ambitions, I can exclusively reveal the first policy of the Goveian manifesto - #LetThemHaveSex. Everyone will be so busy bonking each other that we'll never notice the reforms he'll be bringing to the healthcare system, the work and pensions system, or anything else he can get his hand on.

Mr Gove has successfully singlehandedly turned a whole profession against this government in one fell swoop. Others have tried (Lansley and then Hunt at the Dept of Health, IDS at Work & Pensions), but none can compare to the efficacy of Gove's pissing-as-many-people-off-as-possible doctrine.

So without further ado, I'm starting the "Gove for Leader" fund. I've found a couple of 2ps down the back of the sofa to get us up and running. Any donations are welcome - buttons, fluff, mouldy Smarties, whatever. He's electoral gold for the Labour Party, ensuring that the Tories are kept out of office for rather a long time, and if for some baffling reason he did manage to sneak into No. 10, then at least we'd all be too busy shagging ourselves senseless to care. Win-win.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Political jokes...

Spotted this in a John Rentoul comment from The Independent a few years back. It's a joke told be Jeremy Hunt, of all people, at an event back in 2008. I hate to admit it, but it is quite funny...

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Vladimir Putin, George W Bush and Peter Mandelson are summoned to heaven by God. God says to them "Go back to your people and let them know that I've decided that the world will end tomorrow".

So Putin goes back to the Kremlin and says "Ok, I've got two bits of bad news. 1 - turns out that God exists. 2 - the world's going to end tomorrow". 

Bush heads back to the White House and says "Right, we'll I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that God exists. The bad news is that the world's ending tomorrow". 

Mandelson goes back to Downing Street and, the wily political spinner that he is, says to Gordon Brown "I've got two bits of good news. 1 - I'm one of the three most important people on the planet. 2 - David Miliband won't be replacing you as Prime Minister!".

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rail in the North: ambition needed

Today, I went along to a Westminster Hall debate called by Labour on railway rolling stock allocation to the north of England, after the news that First TransPennine Express are to lose their nine Class 170 two-car units next year, ultimately due to the bungling incompetence of the DfT over the West Coast Main Line franchise renewal.

It is time that ambition and a vision was brought forward, in order to get our railways in the north back on track. The investment has been piecemeal and hardly integrated and cohesive. It is all very well to preach repeatedly about the electrification brought about by the Northern Hub and Transpennine upgrade projects, but unless there is the provision of electric trains to use the new infrastructure, then it is quite frankly rather a waste of many millions of pounds.

I would support moves towards a devolved rail network for the north. The investment and improvement in the London Overground network since it was taken in-house by Transport for London has been remarkable, and the consequent rise in passengers has proved the old adage that is applicable to the railways - "build it* and they will come" (*providing you build something that people want/need). I have seen it with my own eyes. People tend not to use trains because they want to, but rather because they have to. They're put off using trains if the timetable is inconvenient, the journey time too long or the fares unaffordable. But if you provide a service that is attractive to passengers, then you can guarantee that they will take up the offer.

I come from a part of the world where a 30 mile stretch of railway sees no trains for nearly 12 hours every night and between 1900 Saturdays and 0600 Mondays. The same stretch of railway, serving the Sellafield nuclear site, which employs 17,000 people, has a commuter service which is virtually non-existent. But if you were to provide a decent half-hourly service to Sellafield from both the north and south during the peak periods, I guarantee you that people would use it.

I'd like to see areas such as Merseyside and Tyneside/Wearside/Teesside given the freedom to operate the rail services in their conurbations and beyond. A full-electrified network of lines stretching from Preston potentially to Wrexham on the west side of the country, with modern electric trains operating throughout.

This would include extensions of the Merseyrail network from Ormskirk to Preston, from Kirkby to Wigan, Birkenhead to Wrexham, Ellesmere Port to Runcorn and Warrington, and Chester to Warrington. Most of these lines are currently served infrequently by ancient, dilapidated rolling stock, and could potentially be transformed by a revitalised regular, efficient and pleasant modern service.

To the east, I'd advocate a frequent stopping service between Morpeth and Newcastle, electrification westwards to Hexham, the reopening of the Blyth and Tyne freight lines to passenger trains, and the electrification of the Durham Coast from Newcastle to Middlesbrough via Sunderland and Hartlepool. With wires also reaching from Northallerton to Teesside, this route would then provide a diversionary route for electric trains on the East Coast Main Line. With frequent through services from Bishop Auckland to Saltburn via Darlington and Middlesbrough (all newly electrified, of course), then the North East would be able to claim its own railway rebirth. Let us not forget that it is this very same line, the Stockton and Darlington, that started it all in 1825.

This is all just back-of-the-beermat stuff really, but I truly believe that unless someone with a vision and an ambition to see our railways transformed, then they will never see them achieve their full potential. If there are no more Brunels or Stephensons in this country, we may as well board the slow train to Midsomer Norton and Mumby Road.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Ahead of Labour's Special Conference

Ahead of tomorrow's Labour Party Special Conference, which is being held to vote on reforms to the party's links to the trade union movement, here's a few thoughts of my own on the party and the future.

On the back of my party membership card is the following; Clause IV -

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect. 

There is only one true "workers' party" in this country, and it's not the Conservative Party. There's only one party that seeks to unite all British people under one banner - the teachers, nurses, factory workers, cleaners, cooks, builders, train drivers - the people who keep our nation going. And there's only one party out there that has set out to represent and fight for those who are unable to fight their battles alone.

One party to represent all people in Britain, regardless of nationality, race, sexuality, beliefs, background, or age. A party that supports those in need and provides for our future. A party that does not abandon huge swathes of society to despair and hopelessness.

I am not a trade union member, but the unions must play a vital role in our society and our party, because it is the very people of whom they are comprised that our party exists to represent and fight for. And that is what unions are there for - to fight for their members' workplace rights and to ensure that they are not being exploited.

It is important that we never lose touch with the majority of people in this country. According to Nigel Farage, "immigration is the number one issue in this country". Not if you actually go and ask people - normal, working people. They're worried about the healthcare system, the education system, the bedroom tax, pensions, wages, a lack of jobs, businesses closing, spiralling energy prices, and whether they'll have enough money to put food on the table for their families. These are the people in society that we need to stand up for, and these are their concerns that we need to be tackling, in order to change our society for the better.

Thirteen years of Labour government helped transform this country from the dark era of Tory rule. The prosperity, health and growth of our services under Labour has stagnated under the Coalition government, who are bumbling along without any real sense of direction, now they've successfully interfered with our education, healthcare and welfare systems on wild, ideological experiments.

The people of Britain deserve better than a Government that holds them in such low regard, a Government that seeks to divide society and exploit it for its own ends. It is time to take the fight to the Government - to show them that we are a united society that has ambitions to improve our country and our quality of life. To form a Government for the people, by the people.

By the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Spectator does House of Cards



The Spectator has done its own little spoof of House of Cards, featuring the writer of the original novels, Lord Michael Dobbs, and some well-known political faces - Nadine Dorries MP, Michael Fabricant MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Chris Bryant MP, and Boris Johnson.

I don't think Mr Spacey need worry about job security for the time being.

Friday, February 21, 2014

It's never 20 years?

This Spring marks 20 years of my involvement with the Labour Party. As a two year old, I was enlisted to assist with doorstep canvassing in Copeland for the 1994 European Parliament elections, with my Mum. My Mum joined the borough council the following year, and in 1999 began working for the then-MP, Jack Cunningham, former Agriculture Minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

As a toddler on the campaign trail, I was soon heard to be asking "So where's the [Labour] Party then?", presumably expecting presents, cakes and balloons.

20 years on, and now working on the Parliamentary estate in Westminster, I'm still not sure!



























Campaigning in Dumfries, 1996 (age 4).

















Meeting Tony Blair MP, then-Prime Minister, with Copeland's MP, Jamie Reed, at an event at Sellafield in November 2006 (age 15).

















In the public gallery at a sitting of the Public Accounts Committee, December 2013 (age 22).

Monday, February 17, 2014

Putting a bit of stick about



"Now then, Mr Stoat!"
Chief Whip Francis Urquhart and his deputy, Tim Stamper, gang up on a naughty backbencher, in the BBC's 1990 original House of Cards.

"And if you must use whores, then for God's sake go to a decent knocking shop, where they understand the meaning of discretion. Stamper will give you a list if you don't know any yourself."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Poetry - Speaking Cumbrian - the short course

Speaking Cumbrian - the short course

Ah'reet marra, 'ow's the dyarn?
Hello my friend, how are you doing?
Nut bad pal, where's the ga'an?
Very well my dear acquaintance, to where are you travelling?
Az off t'Truppena
I am going to Torpenhow [NB - pronounced "Trupennah"]
Where's thay frae, marra?
From where do you hail, my friend?
Is the frae White'ev'n, or Wuk'i'un?
Are you from Whitehaven, or Workington?
Nah marra, az nut a Jam Eater
You are gravely mistaken, I am from neither
Thou's frae Spyatrie 'n' az frae Cleator
You reside in Aspatria, whereas I live in Cleator
Aye, so's me al' lass
Is that so? My beloved wife was also born there
An' az ga'an yam fer a yam-byak'd cyak
And I am just off home as she has made me a wonderful afternoon tea

Poetry - Ravenglass, Glannoventa



Ravenglass, Glannoventa

Nestled on an estuary
Ancient houses on the shore
Three rivers, a Roman port
Muddy beach and cobbled streets
Cul-de-sac with ferrous gate
Tourists on the village green
Sleepy hamlet slumbers on.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

House of Cards (spoiler-free!) verdict

Well, wow, what can I say?

Started series 2 of House of Cards at 7pm last night, finished it at 10pm tonight. 13 hours of television watched in 27 hours.

It's proved to be even more enjoyable than the first series, and even more addictive. Brilliant performances all round. Much darker than the first series, with a little less breaking of the fourth wall. A fantastic adaptation of the original novel and BBC series. Plenty of surprises along the way.

Get yourself onto Netflix and get watching it. That's a three line whip.

Friday, February 14, 2014

House of Cards - series 2

So, the question on everyone's lips.

"Is House of Cards series two even better than series one?"

You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.

---

On Netflix from today. 13 episodes. I've already worked my way through the first four. Sublime.

---

PS. Happy Valentine's Day.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Aren't you going to wish me a Happy Valentine's Day?"


I'm a cunning linguist

Working in those famous buildings across the Thames from the London Eye, I've had quite a few people assume that I studied politics at university. So they're quite surprised to learn that I've actually got a degree in linguistics. They then ask what language that is - assuming that I've studied French, German, or Spanish. "No, no, just English - English Language, that's what a Linguistics degree is".

People ask what my course involved. Accents and dialects? Yes, but I didn't specialise in that field, as phonetics proved a little too much for me and my regional accent's pronunciation of certain vowels (the "a" sound in "face" and "oa" sound in "boat" will probably not be the same for me as they are for you, or in Received Pronunciation). While not possessing a strong West Cumbrian accent, I do have the vowel sounds common to most users of some form of North-Eastern English accent (Cumbria, linguistically, has more in common with NE England than NW England, even though it's in the NW!).

So what did I cover at university? Mainly pragmatics - the construction of meaning through context. While semantics deals with individual word meanings, pragmatics involves words being said by particular people to particular people at particular locations at particular points in time (this is all context). As part of a study of language-in-use and sociolinguistics, this is where the fields of linguistics, sociology and psychology all blur into one.

But my favourite response is when I tell people that as part of my course, I studied Conversation Analysis. The look of pure horror on people's faces as they frantically try to remember what they've just said to me, under the impression that I am now psychoanalysing their every utterance. Absolutely priceless.

Conversation Analysis does not come anything close to this - it involves incredibly detailed transcription of talk, which is then analysed with a fine tooth comb, picking out recurring phenomena within the data set in order to try and explain why people say particular things and what jobs particular conversational features do.

My main interest was the study of language-in-use. Rather than mere theory about language - syntax, grammar, etc., it is the study of how real people use real language in real situations. There's no such thing as "right" or "wrong" language use - no matter how annoyed we get when people have an inability to use punctuation or say "could of" when they mean "could have" (and believe me, I get very, very annoyed!). The whole point is that language is merely a means to an end.

As language users, we must assess what the primary purpose of our language is. From a Clarkian perspective (H.H. Clark, 1996, Using language - check it out!), language is all about achieving things, getting things done, and co-operation and co-ordination. These are our end goals - we seek to achieve our aims, whether that is to order a beer, to speak to our lecturer in an academic setting, or even to order our lecturer a beer! The fact is that virtually everybody uses language in their everyday life, though very few people stop to think about exactly how they use it - and of the few that do, even fewer still feel a need to dictate to others how things should be done. And what right to they have to do this? Why should we always do things in a certain way? To spend too much time cathecting and perfecting the way in which we say or write things can only ever be at the expense of us actually putting our words to good use and "doing things" (Clark 1996: 3).

Clark writes that "language is rarely used as an end in itself" (1996: 387), which is something that linguistic conservatives do not seem to consider. When asking out that pretty girl, "using language was only a means to that end" (Clark 1996: 387) - the likelihood is that the outcome of the interaction will culminate in the girl giving us either a yes- or a no-type answer; it is unlikely that she would correct us, had we ended a sentence with a preposition. And what do we want - the pretty girl, or a conversation about syntactic structure? To waste our lives concentrating on the means of language, rather than its ends, can never be ultimately productive, and will only serve to stall our efforts to get things done.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Shipping Forecast with a Yorkshire twist



Alan Bennett, the poet and playwright, reads the Shipping Forecast as part of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, when it was guest-edited by Michael Palin over Christmas.

Pure poetry in motion.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Oh, Doctor Beeching! Revisited

Revisiting a relic of a by-gone age...

Oh, Doctor Beeching!
What have you done?
You shut the line from Okehampton
That ran to Bere Alston
The Dawlish line's collapsed
Shut down for six weeks at best
Oh, Doctor Beeching!
No more trains to the South West!


















With Brunel's Great Western Main Line closed for the foreseeable future between Exeter St Davids and Plymouth, due to this rather nasty failing in the Dawlish sea wall, between Exeter and Newton Abbot, there has been a lot of talk on the internet about the possibility of reopening the former London & South Western Railway line between Meldon Quarry, Okehampton and Bere Alston, on the Plymouth - Gunnislake branch. Said line closed in 1968, though most of the former trackbed is in a pretty good condition.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Political views


Top - the view (or lack thereof) from a photocopier room in Norman Shaw South, looking across to 1 Canon Row.
Middle - the stairs between Lower Waiting Hall and the Committee Corridor, in the Palace of Westminster.
Bottom - the seemingly endless stairwell in Norman Shaw North, the original New Scotland Yard building, now MPs' offices.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thomas the Jazz Engine

One from YouTube - a big band arrangement of the original Mike O'Donnell & Junior Campbell theme for Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, which was used between 1984 and 2003.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Notes from a Small Island

The following is my favourite extract from my favourite book, Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. As one who is lucky enough to be afflicted by a degree of "trainspotter's disease" (and yes, I have the t-shirt) - 





















Over a long period of time it gradually dawned on me that the sort of person who will talk to you on a train is almost by definition the sort of person you don’t want to talk to on a train, so these days I mostly keep to myself and rely for conversational entertainment on books by more loquacious types like Jan Morris and Paul Theroux.

So there is a certain neat irony that as I was sitting there minding my own business some guy in a rustling anorak came by, spied the book, and cried, ‘Aha, that Thoreau chap!’ I looked up to find him taking a perch on the seat opposite me. He looked to be in his early sixties, with a shock of white hair and festive, lushly overgrown eyebrows that rose in pinnacles, like the tips of whipped meringue. They looked as if someone had been lifting him up by grabbing hold of them. ‘Doesn’t know his trains, you know,’ he said.

‘Sorry?’ I answered warily.

‘Thoreau.’ He nodded at my book. ‘Doesn’t know his trains at all. Or if he does he keeps it to himself.’ He laughed heartily at this and enjoyed it so much that he said it again and then sat with his hands on his knees and smiling as if trying to remember the last time he and I had had this much fun together.

I gave an economical nod of acknowledgement for his quip and returned my attention to my book in a gesture that I hoped he would correctly interpret as an invitation to fuck off. Instead, he reached across and pulled the book down with a crooked finger – an action I find deeply annoying at the best of times. ‘Do you know that book of his – Great Railway what’s-it? All across Asia. You know the one?’

I nodded.

‘Do you know that in that book he goes from Lahore to Islamabad on the Delhi Express and never once mentions the make of engine.’

I could see that I was expected to comment, so I said, ‘Oh?’

‘Never mentioned it. Can you imagine that? What use is a railway book if you don’t talk about the engines.’

‘You like trains then?’ I said and immediately wished I hadn’t.

The next thing I knew, the book was on my lap and I was listening to the world’s most boring man. I didn’t actually much listen to what he said. I found myself riveted by his soaring eyebrows and by the discovery that he had an equally rich crop of nose hairs. He seemed to have bathed them in Miracle-Gro. He wasn’t just a train-spotter, but a train-talker, a far more dangerous condition.

‘Now this train,’ he was saying, ‘is a Metro-Cammell self-sealed unit built at the Swindon works, at a guess I’d say between July 1986 and August, or at the very latest September, of ’88. At first I thought it couldn’t be a Swindon 86-88 because of the cross-stitching on the seatbacks, but then I noticed the dimpled rivets on the side panels, and I thought to myself, I thought, What we have here, Cyril my old son, is a hybrid. There aren’t many certainties in this world but Metro-Cammell dimpled rivets never lie. So where’s your home?’

It took me a moment to realize that I’d been asked a question. ‘Uh, Skipton,’ I said, only half lying.

‘You’ll have Crosse & Blackwell cross-cambers up there,’ he said or something similarly meaningless to me. ‘Now me, I live in Upton-on-Severn-’

‘The Severn bore,’ I said reflexively, but he missed my meaning.

‘That’s right, runs right past the house.’ He looked at me with a hint of annoyance, as if I were trying to distract him from his principal thesis. ‘Now down there we have Z-46 Zanussi spin cycles with Abbott & Costello horizontal thrusters. You can always tell a Z-46 because they go patoosh-patoosh over seamed points rather than katoink-katoink. It’s a dead giveaway every time. I bet you didn’t know that.’

I ended up feeling sorry for him. His wife had died two years before – suicide, I would guess – and he had devoted himself since then to travelling the rail lines of Britain, counting rivets, noting breastplate numbers and doing whatever else it is these poor people do to pass the time until God takes them away to a merciful death. I had recently read a newspaper article in which it was reported that a speaker at the British Psychological Society had described train-spotting as a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome.

He got off at Prestatyn – something to do with a Faggots & Gravy 12-ton blender tender that was rumoured to be coming through in the morning – and I waved to him from the window as the train pulled out, then luxuriated in the sudden peace. I listened to the train rushing over the tracks – it sounded to me like it was saying asperger’s syndrome asperger’s syndrome – and passed the last forty minutes to Llandudno idly counting rivets.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The corridors of power


A couple of views of the Palace of Westminster at night. This is the colonnade and tunnel under Westminster Bridge Road that links the Palace with the northern outbuildings - Portcullis House, 1 Parliament Street and the Norman Shaw buildings.