Nicola Barry

Monthly Archives: March 2013

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Telephone etiquette

A little telephone etiquette wouldn’t go amiss

Three stories caught my eye this week: the first involves my absolute hero, a rail passenger who became so sick of some moron yabbering loudly on his mobile that he telephone etiquettegrabbed the handset and chucked it out of the window, before asking: “How much do I owe you for the phone?”


I used to have a fairly romantic view of train traveI – flying along at 70mph, twisting and turning through beautiful countryside, racing past villages and towns, sipping delicious coffee, watching cows and sheep grazing in the fields, as the massive machine rattles back to the future. Now, I am always seated next to a mobile nuisance, a shouter. It seems that so many people have their mobiles glued to their ears 24/7. And they never have anything interesting to say. All you ever hear from the mobile nuisance is their side of the story. It’s cut-price eavesdropping and very unsatisfactory.

The second story concerned a train guard on a journey from Milton Keynes to London who made the following intercom announcement: “Would the woman in First Class please refrain from shouting on her phone as she is annoying other passengers.” The third story involved an equally moronic mobile nuisance who had the cheek, given all the warnings, to use his phone while driving. When stopped by the police, the driver mumbled: “It was my ex-wife harassing me. Could you speak to her for me?” This example was included in a list of weak excuses used by motorists as part of a road safety campaign.

I hate the telephone, in all its forms. And, no matter where you are – whether it’s at dinner in a restaurant, chatting in the street or waiting at the school gates, the ring of a mobile phone changes everything, immediately. The telephone is an intruder. It bursts into your life uninvited, at any time of the day or night, paying absolutely no heed to whatever you happen to be doing at the time. At home, you can, at least, pretend to be out, but with mobiles, there is no escape. That – need I remind you – is the whole point of a mobile. It goes everywhere with you. People forget their manners the minute they get on the blower. They go on and on, without even stopping to draw breath. You could put down the receiver, go off and make a coffee; even a three-course meal and they’d still be chuntering on when you got back.

There simply is no telephone etiquette. You can be deep in conversation with someone and, all of a sudden, that noisy, insolent little instrument in their pocket or yours will blast out the William Tell Overture. We have all come across the shopkeeper who chats on his mobile phone while you’re standing there trying to give him business, or, the friend who invited you out to dinner, who keeps texting a pal while you are in the middle of sharing your deepest thoughts. Remember, when you were a child, your parents used to say, don’t interrupt while other people are talking. Nowadays, the mobile phone does the interrupting for you.

Whatever happened to human contact?

Is there anyone out there who actually prefers communicating with a machine over a human voice? The most irritating phrase on the planet, it is: “Sorry but I just have to take this”… The second most irritating phrase is: “Sorry we can’t come to the phone right now” – that oh-so-familiar, insincere, pre-recorded message. There follows a lengthy explanation of why someone can’t come to the phone. Who cares? Do people really have to list their activities for every Tom, Dick or Harry who calls? “I’m sorry, I can’t answer the phone because “I am washing my hair,” or, “sitting on the couch stuffing my face with horsemeat burgers.” Not content with just asking you to leave a message, they then dictate what your message has to say. It goes: “Please leave a message after the tone, giving your name, phone number, the approximate time you called and your reason for calling. “If it is urgent, please call me on my mobile” – more wasted time while they leave that number as well.

Every time you phone a business these days, you connect with a call centre where some over-familiar twerp says, parrot fashion: ‘Hi, you’re speaking to Kylie, how can I help you?’ How is it that banks, credit card and insurance companies are so desperately keen to take our money yet will do just about anything to avoid speaking to us – the very customers who keep them in business? It is an incredible cheek. When you phone a multinational, hoping against hope to speak to a real person, all you get is the dreaded recorded message – explaining all the options available to help you reach the person you want more quickly. Of course, you have nothing better to do than faff about all day, pressing the star button, keying in your customer number, trying to remember the number you first thought of, doubling it and clicking your next option. What fun. You hang on then a few minutes later, the same irritating voice is back telling you that, sorry, all the customer service advisers are busy at the moment, taking afternoon tea, whatever, and your call has been placed in a queue. Effectively, they’re saying: “I am going to punish you by putting you on hold – for the rest of your life.” Corporate messages always start with something like: ‘You have reached the office of J. Arthur Pilkington Smythe. Your call is important to us” – my ar*e – “and we are so sorry to have missed you on this occasion. If you leave a message, we will call you back.’ If a firm is that successful, why can’t they afford to staff their phones instead of using machines?

There is no end to the daft instructions on some company answering machines – messages such as: “If you are not a customer of Bloggs International, press 3, if you are an existing customer, press 5. If you think you know the extension of your Great Aunt Maud, press 7. And so on.” Funny how there never seems to be an option for the specific query you have. Nor is there ever an option which says if you are a new customer and are being driven to the edge of insanity by this call, press 9. Just how many times have you hung up the phone, sick of waiting to be connected to that elusive human being? The more people who hang up, the fewer call centre advisers are required and the more profits can soar – especially if the call centre is on the other side of the world where staff are paid a pittance anyway.

They tell you that you call may be monitored for training purposes, a polite way of saying, do not lose your temper because, if you do, we will come and get you.

 Article focus: telephone etiquette


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Cocaine Use

Scotland’s Cocaine use a national shame

It is great news that a criminal gang which imported £1.2million of cocaine into Scotland have been handed lengthy jail terms. The men were arrested in Glasgow in May last year by the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) – this nation’s unsung heroes, who, in one year cocaine usealone, managed to seize two tonnes of illegal drugs – more than the weight of a family-sized car – with an estimated street value of almost £47million. The latest gang, of Eastern Europeans, operated out of a safe house in Glasgow’s Kinning Park area.

They deserve every minute of their punishment.

Did you know that every time someone snorts cocaine, eight square metres of Colombian jungle are decimated? It is as simple as that. Each “line” enjoyed here, in the UK, leaves in its wake a trail of bloodshed and devastation. Scots are the highest consumers of the drug in Europe. Drug barons are wily people. They now have a well-established trade route to Scotland now, cutting out the middle man, taking cheap flights abroad and buying straight from the producers. However, regardless of Scotland’s devastation, it pales into insignificance alongside the havoc created in Colombia where the life of any man, woman or child is dispensable in the harvesting and selling of cocaine. Somehow, cocaine has been seen as glamorous, taken by celebrities such as Kate Moss and Pete Doherty but the truth is altogether different.

In two decades, a tropical forest the size of Wales has been destroyed – just to feed the habit of young, middle-class professionals in so-called developed countries. In Colombia’s capital, Bogota, the people are talking about us; about all the casual consumers of cocaine in Scotland. These are often people who recycle; who drive hybrid cars; who donate to Greenpeace. Yet, come the weekend, these same environmentally sound citizens happily snort a line, utterly oblivious to the amount of destruction they are causing in producing countries. In the case of the four men just jailed, the producer is Colombia; the consumer Scotland. Yet, Colombia has been trying hard to rid itself of the cocaine menace. The police have managed to push the insurgent group, FARC, prime movers in the white powder trade, deeper into the jungle and tourists are gradually returning to the country’s beautiful beaches and countryside.

A couple of years ago, I travelled to the South American state with five Scots schoolchildren, their head teachers and a detective inspector from the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. The group represents Shared Responsibility, a project aiming to bring together cocaine-producing and consuming countries to combat drug production, trafficking and abuse. Shared Responsibility is the combined effort of the Colombian Government, pupils from Girvan Academy, in Ayrshire, and Portobello High School, in Edinburgh, and the SCDEA.

Even though the adverts in Bogota proclaim that Colombia is a safe place, there are still problems; mostly drug-related. A UN official said they had abandoned the punitive approach to drugs in favour of “a curative approach” – showing people how to grow alternative crops. In, the bustling port of Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, once the front line of the smuggling trade, the UN has actively weaned farmers off coca plantation. As a result, on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, many of the people who once grew coca are now selling coffee and honey or running eco-lodges. Thousands of innocent people, caught up in the violent crossfire, end up abandoning their homes and fleeing for their lives. The human cost can be seen among the 84 local indigenous groups who are gradually being driven out of their natural habitat by guerrillas; losing their precious traditions and culture in the process.

Their choices are stark. They either become refugees or buckle under, often violent, pressure and become involved in the production of cocaine.

The whole subject of displaced people, especially farmers, is fraught with difficulties. A helicopter ride over the Sierra Nevada mountains reveals areas which have been destroyed to allow coca to grow. Key in prevention is the National Police’s Antinarcotics Base, in Santa Marta. This elite squad of Jungle Commandos fight to eliminate the many drug cartels in the area. The team includes a strategist, an evidence gatherer, a radio operator, a doctor and a person responsible for explosives. They demonstrated how they approach a cartel in the jungle and destroy it. They also show us how cocaine is produced, packed 100 per cent pure before being sent away and contaminated with chalk or baby powder to massively increase its value to drug lords here in Scotland. In fact, the squad’s work has all but cleared the Santa Marta area but cocaine production is still very prevalent in the south. Between 2001 and 2009, the area under cultivation with coca crops in Colombia has been reduced by 58%.

This has been thanks to a comprehensive strategy for combating drugs, including manual eradication programmes and aerial spraying of illicit crops, alternative development and the presence of security forces in the countryside. An anti-narcotics policeman took us through the whole process of making cocaine, exactly as if he was participating in a cooking show demonstration. The police report that a kilo of pure cocaine can be bought in Colombia for about £1,500, re-cut, diluted then sold on in Scotland for up to £50,000.

In South America, the impact of cocaine is everywhere: there are murders, kidnappings, and violence; all financed by trafficking. There is corruption, deforestation and an ugly pollution caused by the lengthy list of chemicals used in the production of cocaine such as pesticides, acetone and permanganates. Colombia’s 40-year war between the government, right-wing paramilitaries and the Marxist guerrillas of FARC has claimed countless lives. And, Scotland’s love affair with cocaine has inflicted a terrible toll on Colombia. The place is playing out an ongoing human tragedy as drug cartels, political rebels and out-and-out bandits vie for a share in the huge profits to be had from cocaine; the white powder so beloved of the chattering classes. Given that the cocaine trade cannot be dealt with exclusively from the point of view of either supply or demand, producer and consumer countries must share this responsibility.

And that means us here in Scotland.

Article focus: cocaine use

photo by: Alan Cleaver

Hens as pets

hens as petsHorsemeat got you worried?
For a good life, try keeping hens as pets.

We were sitting at home the other day, eating these free range eggs when my husband screeched, “You should blog about this”. He is right. These particular free range eggs are the most delicious thing we have ever eaten – apart from my own cooking. Ha ha. When it comes to pets, they say if you want a good walk, keep the dog. If it’s a good cuddle you want, buy a cat. But if you want a pet which gives you something back other than the usual licks, woofs and miaows, get a hen.

In the past decade, keeping hens has become remarkably common, helped along by celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver. In this post-recession climate, as austerity bites – more and more people are starting their own little brood. It is estimated that some 500,000 homes in the UK keep hens as pets. They are cheap to feed. They don’t need to be taken out walkies. They are a source of constant, delicious eggs, way beyond organic and they don’t make much noise – unless you buy a cockerel by mistake.

Kathryn Walker is a perfect example of a modern day hen fancier. A full-time dog walker and pet sitter, Kathryn was inspired by re-runs of the Seventies hit sitcom The Good Life starring Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers. Kathryn finds her chicks interesting, comical, self-sufficient and well suited to the rural environment in which she and her husband, Steve,live.

Hens come in a wide range of colours, shapes and types, as do their eggs. Some are table birds, others more suited to laying eggs. Kathryn and Steve have a bungalow, near Carnwath, between Edinburgh and Lanark – what you might call a perfect chicken and egg situation. They also have cats, Minnie and Tom, and as well as dogs, Dot and Molly. Having grown up on a farm in Northumberland, Kathryn has been surrounded by animals all her life but when she was a child, chickens were only kept for their eggs and their meat.

Hens have never been seen as pets in the way they are now. A couple of years ago, Kathryn, who runs her own business, Animal Madness, decided a strip of grass at the back of her house could be put to good use. “I immediately thought of keeping a few free-range hens,” she says, “mainly because they do not need a lot of looking after.” She continues: “A friend gave us a garden shed. We turned it into a chicken coop and painted it forest green. Inside there is sawdust on the floor and three nest boxes.”

The cosy coop is home to six funky chickens – Wilma, Scrumpy, Pinot, Merlot, Ruby and Rosie, ranging from 18 months to 4 year old.

Kathryn says: “If you look after them properly, give them an environment safe from predators, they will thrive. Pet chickens should be free-range. They love having space to walk around. Our hens are just as much a part of the family as the cats and dogs. “I worry about the hens as much as I do our other pets.” So much so that when Scrumpy took ill, Kathryn and Steve went onto Google for advice and gave her a bath. “She was very poorly – egg bound, they call it – so we were keeping her in the house,” Kathryn says. “I filled a basin with warm water and put her in. We expected to get absolutely drenched with much flapping of wings and squalling. In fact, Scrumpy just sank back into the water, making happy clucking noises. After her bath, Kathryn dried off her feathers with a coolish hair dryer. “She was fine after that – never looked back,” Kathryn adds.

But can you communicate with a hen they way you can, say, with a dog? Kathryn scratches her head and adds: “I have noticed that hens are extremely nosey. Whenever I go near the coop, they flock round and watch me with their beady eyes. “When I talk to them, they tilt their heads to one side as if they understand. “And when I close them up for the night, if they are sitting on their perch, about to nod off, I sometimes stroke their feathers. They know me because I take them food. I am their primary carer, because Steve is out at work.”

A six-foot secure fence, which surrounds the hen house, keeps out foxes. (During the day they get to wander around a 2 acre field, pottering away beside the sheep!) Kathryn’s hens eat chicken pellets, Weetabix, vegetables, worms, you name it. “The only thing they don’t like really are greens,” Kathryn says. She adds: “They are easy to look after and children in particular love them. So that makes them the perfect family pet. Watching a chicken peck and scratch the soil is relaxing, and there is nothing like eating a fresh egg straight out of the barn. “I think people have become far more knowledgeable about food. They want organic chicken and eggs.”

Some animal charities have noticed a growing interest in self-sufficiency and a big rise in demand for egg-laying hens. Jim Duff, Scottish representative of the British Hen Welfare Trust, says he is re-homing thousands of former battery hens and has a waiting list of 800 people. The birds come from chicken farms once they no longer produce enough eggs and face being culled. To acquire a hen from The Trust, potential owners give a donation. Jim says: “Hens are fascinating creatures to keep. We can re-home as many as 700 in a weekend. Sometimes people think by taking a few hens, they are saving the world. The trouble is, the scale of battery farming is such that I may take 600 from a farmer but that still leaves him with 6,000.

It must be wonderful to have a pet which can produce ingredients for a good omelette every day, which looks decorative, and, when its eggs cease to drop, could, perhaps, make the perfect Sunday roast. Jim scoffs and says: “Most of our customers are a big girl’s blouse when it comes to eating their precious hens. They wouldn’t dream of it.”