I Don’t Always Moan

Wednesday 19th March, 2014
If you follow me on Twitter, Facebook or similar online media, you'll know I have a tendency to complain when things don't go how they should. I work damn hard to deliver a good service to my customers and don't feel it's too much to ask for those around me to do the same.

Back in 2011, in a bit of a reversal, I wrote a blog entry "Can Anybody Get It Right?"  in honour of those companies that DID manage to live up to my standards. I don't think those requirements are particularly high, I just expect things to work as they should. If Amazon Prime says they will provide next day delivery, I expect my product to arrive...next day. Often it doesn't, which is why I constantly rant about them. The same applies for South West Trains, who constantly arrive at my required destination well beyond the scheduled time.

So, almost three years on, is anybody still floating my boat? Are there any newcomers to my band of heroes?

Well, here's my list of honours...

Ocado
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What? Again?

Yes, they're here again. Despite customers numbers being way up, and being far busier than they would have been in 2011, Ocado still never fail to deliver. We even trust them to bring our food products on Christmas Eve with no backup in place.

The product range keeps getting bigger and now, instead of being fully dependent on Waitrose goods, many products now arrive as Ocado own brand. The quality is just as good, it's just a little cheaper.  Talking of cheaper, a Tesco price match is in place for branded goods. If there is a better deal on Coke or coffee at Tesco, the Ocado checkout will match it for us.

The price of deliveries may have gone up a little over time but, in reality, no doubt the cost of providing the service has too. They come, on time, whether it's bright sunshine or snow outside - even equipping their fleet with winter tyres so they don't let people down. In a recent example, the Ocado delivery truck got a puncture on the way to my mother-in-law's house. Instead of failing to deliver, the driver carried all the bags about a quarter of a mile down the road to her home. Then, on his return, transferred the rest of his deliveries to a backup van that had arrived to prevent any interruption to service.

In my last article I said I how I had recommended Ocado to all my family and friends. Now they have and they all use them.

Honda UK
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Like my dad and his dad, when I bought my first lawn mower I bought a Flymo. It worked. It didn't cut particularly well, but it worked. It didn't pick the grass up very well, but it worked. The cable wasn't very long and needed an extension, but it worked.

In fact, it worked for far too long. Over 10 years I carted that damn hover mower around and I never took any satisfaction from it. One day I even ran over and cut through the cable. I prayed it was dead, but still it survived.

In the end, enough was enough. It would still cut grass, but it was never very good at it. I had a nice new home with a nice new garden and wanted something that would do a proper job. This meant a petrol mower and enter Honda UK.

The Honda Izy range is entry level when it comes to petrol mowers, but that doesn't mean it's cheap and nasty. Gone are the days of mixing petrol and 2-stroke oil, modern Honda mowers come with proper 4-stroke engines. You simply fill it with normal unleaded, the same as you use for your car, and pull the string. Once. None of this pull, pull, pull nonsense. You just pull the string and it starts up...first time.

We're now in the middle of March and last weekend I mowed the lawn for the first time this year. The mower had been sat stationary in the shed since the end of October; a good five months. I pulled the mower out, filled her with fuel (they recommend you run it dry before storage) and pulled the cord. She fired straight up.

I call her "she" because I love her. She just works and she cuts my lawn beautifully. She cuts closer than my old mower and she picks up all of the bits. She doesn't blow the bits into the flower beds. She doesn't blow grit into my eye. She just works. I can get her out of the shed, start her up, mow the lawn and put her back again in a quicker time than it took me to get the Flymo out and play the "extension cable through the kitchen window" game with my wife.

I'd once though of petrol mowers as heavy and unreliable, but now I realise they are more convenient and a great investment. In fact, I got into power tools so much that I've even expanded into the Honda Versatool range that provides me with strimmer, hedge trimmer and chainsaw/pruner all using one petrol power unit. Like the mower, it just works and I'm now taking summer bookings from family and friends to prune their trees.

Barbecoa Butchers
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A bit of a local recommendation but, if you're ever in the City of London, go down to St. Paul's and drop into Barbecoa Butchers.

A collaboration between chef Jamie Oliver and pig farmer Adam Perry Lang, this butchers sells quite simply the best pork I have ever tasted anywhere in the world. If you like pork chops, bacon or a bit of tenderloin fillet, I cannot recommend it enough.

Lean, full of flavour and great value, Barbecoa has become my only source of pork products for the household. The staff are outstanding too, chopping and trimming meat to your exact specification. I recently went in for a specific amount of tenderloin pork fillet and they butcher weighed every piece they had on the counter to find they were all a bit too small. Not wanting to give me two bits from two different animals, he walked straight into the glass door fridge and I watched as he cut me one straight out of a whole pig that was hanging in there.

How many butchers that you know would cut into a whole new animal just to give you a piece of the right size? Now I'll tell you that this was 5.30pm on a Friday night. This is a premier league butchers in a world of non-league players.

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Having a baby? Catching a train? Read on...

Wednesday 27th November, 2013
Hello mum to be, I'm Ben and I'm a father of two.

During her first pregnancy, my wife got the train each day to and from work and I learned that it was a difficult game. At some stages you won't look pregnant but you'll feel sick. Other times you'll feel really tired and need a sit down. You may feel fluid building up on your feet and your shoes won't fit properly. Finally you'll get big and heavy and you'll be struggling to carry a load of gifts that your colleagues bought you on your last day in the office.

If you're one of these people, this advice is for you. Take it or leave it but hopefully it may help a few readers along the way.

Part One - How confident are you?

You're in a department store and your baby has just filled his nappy. Are you comfortable approaching a shop assistant and asking where their changing facilities are? Or will you wait until you get home?

You've just popped to town for a couple of hours and your baby has filled her nappy for the THIRD time. You used the last spare nappy in your bag during the last change. Will you stop a random parent in the shopping mall and ask if she has a spare nappy you can have? Or will you let your child sit in the dirty one until you get home?

Being a parent takes confidence. You often need help from random strangers. They'll rarely feel comfortable enough to offer, but be more than willing if you ask for help. It's something you learn, quickly. My wife was often too nervous even to call and order take away food, now she's sharing packs of baby wipes with complete strangers in Costa Coffee.

You're on a train and you need a seat, but they're all taken. Other commuters can't guess you are pregnant. They genuinely may not have seen your "Baby on Board" badge. They may not even hear you if you ask. What will you do?

The other day I was watching a TV show with my headphones on. A lady tapped me on the shoulder. I pulled my headphone off and she asked:

"I'm pregnant, can I have your seat?".

"No problem, you're going to make a great mum".

Why? Because she's confident. Because she's not afraid to approach random strangers and ask them for help. She'll go a a long way.

Part Two - Do you like filling in forms?

Does anybody like paperwork? Actually, my wife seems to love filling in forms. Names, addresses, dates of birth. You've got a lot of that to come. You'll need to do birth certificates, registration at your local doctors, applications for child benefit etc.

But there's a form you can fill in right now. It's on the South West Trains website. You won't find it by accident. Search the site for "pregnant", it's not there. Search the FAQ, it's not there. But somewhere, hidden within the 'Travelling with us' section you will find the magical "Mums To Be First Class Upgrade" section.

Making journeys to work a little easier for expectant mothers. Expectant mothers who hold a weekly, monthly or longer season ticket can apply for a First Class Upgrade which allows you to sit in First Class when there are no Standard Class seats available.


To apply, you will need your MATB1 form which is given to you by your doctor or midwife no more than 20 weeks before your due date. To be eligible for the Mums-to-be upgrade pass, please complete our Mums-to-be application form and enclose a copy of your MATB1 and current season ticket.


Here is a direct link to the form in case you need it.

First Class is the carriage near the toilets. Handy for when you need to throw up or have an emergency wee when baby pushes on your bladder. It's yours, for no additional charge. You just need to fill out a form, a skill you need to develop. Do this and, even if you aren't confident, you can get a seat.

Part Three - The alternative.

I arrive at Waterloo twenty minutes before my train is due to depart. I'm the first on on board the train. I take the seat of my choice, take off my coat, put my items in the overhead rack and make myself comfortable.

You arrive 2 minutes before the train is due to depart feeling fat, uncomfortable and out of breath. The train is mostly full with standing room only, but you insist on taking the carriage closest to the exit barrier at your destination station. You cram your way on and, seeing your pregnant, other standing passengers allow you to move away from the door to a more comfortable location. Perhaps towards the seats.

Most of the seated people don't see you. Those that do will intentionally ignore you. They arrived in plenty of time for the train and maybe, just like me, they made a conscious decision not to get an earlier service as no seats had been available. They aren't going to give up their seat for anybody, they made a concerted effort to get it. If you need a seat, there is one back on the platform and the next train, which is still half empty, leaves in ten minutes.

If you really need a seat, you will ask. You won't just stand and glare at people. You won't just get angry as people, who arrived in plenty of time, don't fall over backwards to offer you their seat.

First class is over there, you could be in it. Did you fill out the form? Oh, it's still in your bag as you haven't got any stamps yet?

You see, I'm not allowed in first class. I'm not pregnant. If I was, I'd fill out a form and have a nice cosy seat on the way home. Just because you didn't it's now my problem? There are empty seats in first class, one of which you could be in, but now you want mine? Not a chance.

There is a pregnant lady on the train pretty much every day. Should I yield every day and give up my seat? Why should I give it up one day but not the next? How can I choose one mother over another? Surely either I always do or I always don't? But you don't even need to be here, you could be in first class. You could spare me this dilemma. You could get the next service that is four platforms away and leaves just 12 minutes later. But getting this train was more important than getting a seat? Fair enough, in that case it's not my problem and you can stand.

This is the harsh reality of being pregnant on a train and why, despite spending 6 months picking my wife up from a station as she was too tired to walk home, I rarely give up my seat on a train. If you'd like a seat though, do feel free to tap me on the shoulder - I'd be delighted to oblige.

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Excuse me, why do you bring your bike on the train?

Wednesday 11th September, 2013
Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have a pet hate of cyclists. They used to get in my way on the roads, constantly breaking the Highway Code. They often try to run myself and my family down on local pavements. Most recently, they're always on the train at peak times, blocking emergency exits, when they aren't even allowed to be there.

I constantly moan at the SW Trains twitter team that this is a ridiculous situation. They aren't allowed but nobody stops them. Platform dispatch crews leave it to the guards and the guards don't care at all. In fact, guards who aren't commercial (ticket checking) rarely even care to walk through the train during a journey. I asked the head of guards for SW Trains in a recent passenger forum and he explained that guards are keen to avoid confrontation. Even at off peak times, cycles should be in the designated area and secured using the provided strap. This is for the safety of other passengers, but clearly guards care more for their own safety than for that of their paying passengers. For reference, I'm basing this on my experience of over 1,000 SW Trains journeys in the past year.

But why do cyclists do it? They know it's not allowed, so why break the rules?

I've been dying to answer this question for a long time but usually I find those in my carriage are somewhat unapproachable and also listening to their earphones. But today's example simply looked like a nice guy. I checked to see if perhaps he had a puncture or broken chain, that had forced him to get the train, but there was nothing obvious. So I asked him "excuse me, why do you bring your bike on the train?".

He looked at me and smiled. "I'll share a story with you", he said.

"A while back I was just like you, paying over £300 a month for my season ticket. It kept going up year on year, despite usually being late, and I just had to pay it. Meanwhile, the train was always full of bikes at peak times that weren't supposed to be there...like I am today. This used to really annoy me because, they also didn't have a ticket - just like me right now. There was no point in them having one, the bike wasn't allowed anyway, so at peak times they were always going to be invalid. If the guard came they could be thrown off the train, ticket or not, so why bother spending £300 a month?

"My season ticket was due for renewal and I popped to Tesco for a few bits on the way home and noticed they had a cheap mountain bike for about 70 quid. Rather less than my season ticket, maybe I should ride to work? But, in reality, it was too far to cycle and would take too long. I could ride half way though, that would reduce the ticket cost, but the bike wouldn't be allowed on the train.

"It didn't matter, my mind was made up. I popped home to get the car and bought a bike. The following week I didn't renew my season ticket. Instead I just cycled to the station, it was quicker than walking, and got on my usual train...with the bike. People gave me the odd glare but never said anything. I just wanted to see how far I could get before getting thrown off...it never happened. I made it all the way into town and nobody questioned it."

"But why travel at peak times?" I asked.

"Well firstly, I travel when I need to get to/from work but I do try my best to get on the busier trains. I arrive late, so the guard doesn't have time to speak to me before we leave, and then the train is so packed he's got no hope of coming down to sort me out. Of course, as it's busy, they don't check tickets too...so I never buy one".

"Never?"

"Well, not this year...nor most of last. I bought the bike around Easter time in 2012...and have never bought one since."

"So you've never been caught?"

"One or twice, but not much. I usually try to get near the front of the train, where it's busiest and the guards can't get through. They usually hide near the back where it's quieter and don't bother moving. In what, 18 months? I've been stopped maybe five times maximum. I usually make an excuse about the ticket machine not working and buy a ticket on the train...or on the platform when I get off.  I've had a couple of warnings, been fined once, but it's a lot cheaper than £300 a month."

"So you've never been thrown off?"

"Once, it was during the Olympics. They seemed to have extra staff around that time and they were checking tickets a lot. Thankfully the weather was nice, so I just got off like he said and cycled the rest of the journey to the office. I wasn't even late for work, most of the roads were closed to cars so it was an easy trip. The only problem was finding somewhere to park my bike...I usually just lock it up on the platform in Waterloo. It makes it a lot easier to get through the barriers if you don't have a bike, so I dump it when I get off the train. I don't ride it in town, I'd need a helmet and stuff for that,"

"If you're not going to ride it in town, why take the bike with you?"

"You missed the point...I don't have a ticket. The bike is there in case I get thrown off the train...I can cycle the rest of the journey".

"So how much have you saved?"

"Over 300 a month, less a fine or two and the cost of the bike...about five grand".

I think I'll buy a bike this weekend.

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Auto Trader Goes Digital

Tuesday 2nd July, 2013
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Picture the scene.

You're sat with your mates in the local greasy spoon, eating a fry up after the big party the night before. One of them looks up...

"Shall we buy an RS Turbo?"

"What?"

"A Ford Escort RS Turbo...Mk 4. I'm looking at this one in Auto Trader and reckon if we all threw in £50 that we could go and buy it...today"

He then proceeds to throw his copy of Auto Trader across the table so everybody could take a look.

"But what about a Renault 5 GT Turbo?" suggests another, having turned over a few pages.

Little has changed with the younger generation, except for one thing - they're no longer looking through a magazine. Instead of sharing one copy of the magazine between a group of six, everybody now has a copy of the app on their phone - well, everybody except that one who insists on sticking with his BlackBerry as "the battery life is better".

Like BlackBerry, print sales of Auto Trader have been on a continual slide from a peak of 368.000 readers in January 2000 to just 27,000 readers in March 2013. In contrast, on-line editions have been rocketing skyward with the Auto Trader website achieving 11 million unique visitors a month and access from mobile devices roughly doubling on average year on year.

Needless to say, the time has come for Auto Trader to shut down those printing presses and go on-line only.

To mark the occasion, Auto Trader has created 250 special collector’s edition innovative front cover wrap magazines. The limited edition copies feature a digital screen, with video content that celebrate the brand’s 36 year heritage. These special edition magazines aren’t available to buy, but Auto Trader fans can win a copy via website and social media competitions.

The final standard issue of all the magazines - on shelves right now - has also been brought to life, instead using Blippar’s innovative image-recognition technology - allowing smartphone users to play video content, directly off the cover itself. The magazine also includes a special front cover pull out poster featuring the most iconic cars from the past five decades, as voted by Autotrader.co.uk users. The cover car, the Jaguar F-Type, received over 45,000 votes alone as Auto Trader fans chose it as the most iconic car.

So, if you want one last chance to experience your student life all over again...take a quick run to WH Smith...the one opposite the greasy spoon.

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Review: Rara.com

Friday 25th January, 2013
If you've ever ripped a CD into iTunes you may have wondered how it instantly recognises the disc along with its contents, saving you the effort of typing in all the Artist/Title data in manually.

That technology is provided by Gracenote, a company owned by Sony which now maintains a database of over one billion pieces of data that it licenses to the likes of Apple, Bose, Spotify and even Google. But it's never had its own branded music product, although the closest so far is music service rara.com.
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Formed out of a partnership with Omnifone, that sees the two provide back end technology for London based rara.com, the music service now carries over 18,000,000 tracks and is available in most parts of the world including the US, Europe, Asia and Australia. As there is currently a free 7 day trial until the end of January, I thought I'd try it out.

Going from iTunes and Rhapsody, thru Last.FM and Napster and on to Spotify and Google Play Music, I've used my fair share of music services along with the benefits and negatives of each. Currently I use Spotify for my primary album listening but use Napster for its charts and Google Play Music to easily play my iTunes ripped CD back catalog without using an Apple device.
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I was hoping that rara.com could maybe combine the best elements of Napster and Spotify, allowing me quick access to the latest albums whilst helping me find new music - indeed, the press release even pointed me to a somewhat random playlist of "Mood Boosting" tracks that contained everything from Tchaikovsky to M People.
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A dip into the settings menu shows just a few options, but one nice feature in particular that other music apps could learn a lot from. Song storage allocation settings allow you to limit the amount of space used up on your phone for music downloads - leaving you guaranteed space for photos and other storage. Using other music apps I've found it far to easy to use up every byte of my phone space and then not to even be able to take a photo.

However, having actually failed to find an easy way in the Android app of copying the playlist for off-line use, I moved on to check out the sound quality. Whilst there appears to be no obvious claims about bitrate of their streamed music, quality through my Bose QC15 headphones and Samsung Galaxy S3 was better than expected, although the app lacks access to the Android EQ that Google Play Music and Spotify are able to use. We're not really on a par with Spotify's "Extreme Quality" download, but we are talking about a service that could cost me £6 instead of £30 over the next three months - a saving we could all do with when that credit card bill lands on the doormat after Christmas.
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The rara.com front screen allows access to a number of features from recommended playlists, thru "Moods" and new music focussed "rara radar", to "Charts" - which is an interesting one. Despite being a British outfit, rara.com appears to lack the UK charts which, far from a criticism, is actually quite useful. One of the things I always used to like about US based Rhapsody (not to be mistaken for the Rhapsody owned UK Napster service) was the ability to play American charts and discover new bands that simply never reach this side of the Atlantic - I've discovered bands like Collective Soul and Five for Fighting that way. There's certainly many of ways to happen upon new albums here, even if I might go off and purchase it in a higher quality for repeated playback on my decent hi-fi kit.
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I decided I'd see how complete the 18 million track back-catalogue is - some 1,000 times bigger than my own iTunes library. Impressive perhaps but Spotify, with it's estimated 20m tracks, wasn't enough for me which is why I've ended up having to use Google Play Music alongside it. A search for 90's band The KLF had me surprised with the amount of results, in fact that it had any at all. On retirement, The KLF reportedly burned one million pounds in cash, because they could, and then deleted their entire back catalogue so nobody could buy their music any more. The end result is that Spotify can't find KLF album The White Room...but rara.com can. I think perhaps other passengers wondered why I was grinning so much as I was All Aboard the Last Train to Trancentral via Waterloo on my way home from work, but I thoroughly enjoyed a trip into a top album from my childhood. Sadly, another search for The Prodigy's Experience album turned up a blank - yet another music service that isn't quite as good as my own.

So, overall, is rara.com as good as the competition? Well maybe it still has some catching up to do but, if you sign up before the end of the month, you'll get 7 days free followed by 3 months at 99p each or £1.99 for mobile access. At that price it's certainly worth a look and allows you to find some new music whilst you put your Spotify payments on hold as you try to pay off those Christmas bills.

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Winter Fuel Payments - Fixed

Monday 12th November, 2012
Lots of debate in the news lately about Winter fuel payments for the elderly. Apparently they've been cut, some are saying they should be axed altogether. On the other side of the argument, we're told that 25,000 people die each year from being cold.

It's a tricky argument as not all pensioners are affected. Some have loads in the bank and don't need the benefit. Some even have loads in the bank and still won't turn the heating on. No matter how much you give them as a hand out, it won't encourage them to turn the heating on.

Took me about 2 minutes to come up with a fix, the news bulletin hadn't even finished on ITV.

Kill the winter fuel payments...completely. Save the government a load of money. Nobody gets paid cash they don't need, or for heating they may not turn on. At the same time, introduce legislation on the energy companies to make them reduce the winter bill for qualifying pensioners by the same amount. e.g. if we currently give pensioners a £50 pay-out for winter fuel, then make the energy company take £50 off their next bill in Winter.

We all know the energy companies coin it in, especially from pensioners who don't really understand the complicated tariffs and discounts available from changing supplier. They're all just happy to sit with British Gas like it's still some nationalised company. It's not...and, under my proposal, Centrica would be paying out £50 for every pensioner on its books.

So we save the government money, pensioners still get their benefit and we impose an indirect "tax" on the utility companies.

Perfect solution? I think so.

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Auto Trader turns on the ignition

Wednesday 7th November, 2012
I don't own an iPad and, to be honest, have never really wanted one. Being a bit of a gadget nut, I've never really had much difficulty in justifying a purchase of the latest kit, I've just never had the use for one. I've only ever seen it as an oversized iPod Touch and a ridiculously expensive way of reading a newspaper on the train.

Many publications are now making the digital switch, carefully typesetting their publications to allow them to be easily ported between print and iPad editions. You can call me a traditionalist though as I've always been of the opinion that, if I wanted to read a magazine like What Car?, I'd always prefer to turn the pages of a paper magazine. So, with this mind-set firmly in place, I ironically found myself invited to the launch of ignition, the new iPad based magazine from Auto Trader.
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Currently exclusive to iPad and the Apple Newsstand - I guess that's the Apple equivalent of WH "would you like a chocolate bar with that?" Smith - ignition will be published monthly and is being pitched at a launch price of £1.49. That's actually pretty cheap for a car magazine.

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So what makes it so different from other publications?

Well firstly, it's got unique content that's only available in this format - there simply isn't a print version. Secondly, it's been purpose built from the ground up to be tablet based, rather than just another print mag with a page turner on board. As such, every little element of the screen comes to life. You touch an image and it may start an interactive video, or it may click you straight through to the related article. Swiping a photo within an article allows you to simply browse the whole album of images - no need to continually scroll up and down the article. The whole thing is like some kind of automotive sliding block puzzle.

It sounds complicated but the whole thing is really intuitive and within a couple of minutes you master the interface and realise just how easy it is to pick up...much easier that it is to put down. This is more that just a website that works off-line.

Where the magazine really excels is where it integrates closely with the original Auto Trader magazine and, most importantly, the UK's biggest marketplace for new and used cars. Click for information about a car and within a click of your fingers, you're looking at used values of the car you've just read about.
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Needless to say, having been a sceptic on arrival, I'm really quite impressed and I genuinely see it as a massive nail in the lid of the coffin for traditional magazines. People had been saying print is dead for some time but it's not until you see a publication like this, with its embedded video reviews and live interactive social media sourced content, that you realise what the future is.

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